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.

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Rain falls in Barcelona

F1
Testing has continued at Barcelona, with one more day left to run. Today (Saturday) saw the first rain. After silly rumours about Ferrari sacking Massa flooded Twitter yesterday, the team cancelled all media interviews with the drivers. This may also be connected to the poor performance of the F2012 so far – how bad a season will it be for the Scuderia? Grosjean went fastest for the second day of the test, while Perez was fastest in the dry today.
HRT will not be present tomorrow, but hope to launch their car at a filming day on Monday. While poor, this is still progress for the Spanish team compared to previous years.

GP3
Jenzer have announced Formula Arbath Italia champion Patric Niederhauser as the second of their drivers for 2012. He also came second in the European season.

FR 3.5
Lotus continue their ‘invasion’ into every single seater category with Gravity-Charouz. The Lotus team will have a Czech nationality, and run with Danish driver Marco Sorensen (2nd last year in German F3) and Richie Stanaway (winner of German F3, as well as the Belgian GP3 sprint race).

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 2 – Australia

It was worryingly close to the season start when HRT announced that Tonio Liuzzi had signed a contract with them for 2011. Sebastian Vettel signed a long-term contract with Red Bull, and Karun Chandhok became a reserve driver at Team Lotus. The circus headed across the sea to Australia, for the first race of the season. Back in England, as Team Lotus and Lotus Renault GP took to the track in F1, the court case between the two outfits over the use of the ‘Team Lotus’ name was about to go ahead.
On the 25th of March we got our first look at the post-testing cars, Pirelli tyres, and DRS. The Red Bulls were fastest in the first session, with Webber ahead of Vettel on home turf. Alonso was third, Rosberg fourth, Barrichello fifth and the two McLarens following. The fastest Renault was Petrov, with Massa slower and Heidfeld slower still. It still seemed the Williams had pace. In the second session it was the two McLarens fastest, and the top seven were separated by less than a second. Sauber’s new driver, Sergio Perez, impressed with his time. He was eighth-fastest, ahead of Barrichello and Rosberg. On the Saturday, Sauber’s pace continued to impress as Kobayashi got into the top ten again, and Petrov was fifth-fastest in the Renault. This time, Williams were nowhere to be seen. And then it was qualifying…
Taking pole position was Sebastian Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton second but much slower. Webber didn’t quite meet his teammate’s time and started third. Vitaly Petrov got into Q3, but teammate Nick Heidfeld had a dreadful qualifying, becoming the first ‘fall guy’ alongside the two Lotuses and Virgins. HRT, whose car was not ready in time, failed to qualify at all. It would be the only time the 107% rule would be applied in the season.

In the race, neither Williams nor Mercedes finished. The Williams both had mechanical issues, while Schumacher had a puncture and Rosberg was too damaged from an accident. Heikki Kovalainen had a water leak that caused the Team Lotus driver to retire as well.
Despite driving most of the race with damage on the floor of his car, Lewis Hamilton came home second behind Sebastian Vettel. Vitaly Petrov managed third to stun the crowd, coming ahead of Fernando Alonso. Jenson Button, however, had less luck. Stuck behind Felipe Massa, he struggled to overtake for a long time. Eventually he cut a corner, getting him in front but resulting in a drive-through penalty as he refused to give the position back. The Saubers also impressed, with rookie Perez managing a one-stop strategy to perfection and finishing just ahead of his teammate. But the car broke the FIA regulations and to the disappointment of everyone, the Saubers were disqualified. This allowed Force India rookie Paul di Resta to score points on his debut instead. Perez and di Resta looked set to be the star rookies of 2011.

With the Australian Grand Prix over, Vettel led the championship. But could he retain his title? Could Renault continue to challenge the top teams? And could Sauber come out leaders of the midfield?

[To be continued]

Qualifying in India

Five drivers will suffer grid penalties tomorow: Petrov for colliding with Schumacher in Korea (5 places), Perez and Hamilton for not being sufficiently cautious under waved yellows (3 places), Ricciardo for changing gearbox (5 places) and Karthikeyan for impeding Schumacher (5 places). Timo Glock failed to meet the 107% rule, but will be allowed to race. He will start from the back of the grid, just as Kobayashi did in Turkey – grid penalties are applied before 107% rule.

Qualifying was generally okay, though once again three drivers failed to set a timed lap in Q3. The first session saw Kovalainen once again force drivers to push to get into Q2, including the impeded Schumacher. It was the Sauber of Kobayashi who fell eventually. Suffering a gearbox problem, Glock was unable to complete a good-enough timed lap and will start 24th. The remaining HRTs both beat d’Ambrosio’s Virgin, but their penalties placed them behind him – Ricciardo first as he was penalised earlier.
In Q2, despite some determined laps, neither Senna, Petrov or Schumacher made it to the third session. Instead, both Toro Rossos and Adrian Sutil were there (they were the drivers who didn’t set a timed lap). Petrov qualified 11th so will start 16th, while Perez qualified 17th and will start 20th behind the two Lotuses and Kobayashi. Schumacher will now start 11th, with Paul di Resta beside him.
Q3 was looking close for pole, until Felipe Massa crashed right at the end. So naturally Vettel took it, giving Red Bull their sixteenth this season – a record number. It is Sebastian’s 13th of the year. Hamilton set the second-fastest time, but his penalty leaves him fifth behind Jenson Button (who was not having a good qualifying), Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. Beside him on the grid is the man he always seems to end up fighting – Felipe Massa. Seventh is Rosberg. The Force India and Toro Rossos are in numerical order behind.

Summer day 13 – Sergio Perez

Sergio Perez – 15
The Australian Grand Prix was set to be a fantastic debut for the first Mexican F1 driver in three decades. Qualifying thirteenth in a car that was clearly good – Kobayashi got into ninth on the grid – he and his teammate landed a double points finish, with Checo ahead of Kamui. Even more incredibly, the Mexican had managed a one-stop race on tyres that were much less durable than the Bridgestones. After watching the race, I was buzzing with how amazing Sauber was this season as I went off to church. But when I got back, disappointment set in. Part of Sauber’s rear wing broke the technical regulations. They were disqualified.
Over the next few races, while Kamui picked up lots of points for his team, Checo struggled. Retiring from the Malaysian Grand Prix when something set his fire extinguisher off, he did miserably in China and Turkey as well. Then came the Spanish Grand Prix, and he redeemed himself admirably, picking up two points and one of the ten youngest drivers to score points. The popular driver was on the up.
Monaco. Qualifying. For the first time, Checo got his car into Q3. Hopes were high and everyone was backing the Mexican as he began his flying lap. And then as he came out of the tunnel he lost control, and went spinning side-on into the barrier. The barrier practically engulfed him. Of course the session was immediately red-flagged, and marshalls and an ambulance hurried to the scene. For a long time, the world watched in tension and prayer as we hoped for Checo’s safety.
In the end, he had nothing more than a concussion, and he even watched the GP2 race while he was in the hospital. He missed that race, and after competing in FP1 in Canada he decided not to race there. Since then, he’s had some good races and one bad one. In Valencia he finished 11th, and he picked up six points at the British Grand Prix. At the Nurburgring he again finished 11th.
The Hungarian Grand Prix was not so good for Checo. He was behind Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus for much of the race, and when he finally overtook the Finn it was under yellow flags. Though he was given a drive-through eventually, the speed of the Sauber meant he still came out ahead of the Lotus. He also came in for some harsh criticism from Jarno Trulli for apparently overtaking using the chicane.

Points: 8
Worst qualifying: 16
Best qualifying: 10
Worst finish: 17 (China)
Best finish: 7 (Britain)
Average difference: 0.38
Laps completed: 493/611 (81%)
Average race position: 13.58 (Best: 9.3 Britain; Worst: 18.1 Turkey)

Wall of Wannabes?

Not only did Sebastian Vettel make friends with the Wall of Champions this weekend, but Sergio Perez is not as well as he thought. He has been replaced by 2010 Sauber driver and current McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa for the remainder of the weekend, as Sauber test driver Esteban Gutierrez is in Mexico this weekend. Perhaps a bit stupid of Sauber not to bring their test driver with their first choice driver still recovering from a bad accident. All the same, Canada might not be the best place to make your debut though Timo Glock did make his debut at the track for Jordan in 2004.
More bad luck for Sauber came in the second practice session, when Kamui Kobayashi shoved his Sauber into a different – so-far unnamed – wall. The session was red flagged. It resumed but was red flagged again minutes later when Jerome d’Ambrosio put his Virgin in the same wall. Perhaps it needs a name too. The Wall of Wannabes ‘cos Kobayashi and d’Ambrosio aren’t champions just yet. Sauber had spent the first half of the session getting the car ready for De La Rosa, and he went out in McLaren overalls in the Sauber (his helmet, however, had Sauber sponsor stickers on) when the session resumed after Kobayashi’s accident.
The Sauber has been looking good this season. I wonder how well the Spanish driver can do in it? Better than Mercedes’ drivers, it seems. Schumacher and Rosberg were both slower than the Team Lotus cars in FP2. This is strange because they were some of the fastest cars in FP1. Only d’Ambrosio in the Wall of Wannabes was outside the 107% time, and the Hispanias were fighting with the Virgins for pace.
Fastest in FP1 was Rosberg, then Alonso and Schumacher. Fastest in FP2 was Alonso, then Vettel and Massa. Is this Ferrari’s weekend at last? Despite that, it would be funny to see three drivers in McLaren overalls on the podium (though I’m not sure the Sauber has that much pace). De La Rosa being McLaren’s tester, he doesn’t have Sauber overalls.