Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Irrational Criticism

As you're all well aware by now, I'm a fan of Sebastian Vettel. I like how he drives, and, more importantly, his approach to racing in general. While you see some drivers sulking, moping or getting angry, this is somewhat rarer with Vettel, and it makes me have a whole lot more respect for him over some other drivers. I'm not saying he's ever had an off day (the infamous Turkey crash with Webber for example), but overall it seems to me that Vettel has an optimistic yet realistic approach to the races.

While I'm therefore convinced that Vettel is one of the greats in F1, others are not so sure. While watching Sky F1 recently for example, I noticed that the TV team are somewhat reluctant to give him credit for anything. It's always the car that got the job done, or the fact that he went off into the lead, while the others were too far behind. It's not just Sky F1 who have spoken like this before. Sir Jackie Stewart also said that Vettel is 'not yet a great' as he hasn't managed to get a championship in a non-dominant car. Indeed, the comments from many people on Twitter also reflect this: whenever Vettel wins, it's not due to his own merit, but it's simply due to the car. Although I agree that having a good car gets you better results, I don't think this is entirely the story with Sebastian, so let me set a few things straight.

First off, perhaps the most obvious evidence that Vettel is one of the F1 greats is his track record. At the age of 25, he already has two world championships, and is in with a great chance of a third. You have to remember that 2008 was Vettel's first full season in F1, so this is only his fifth year in F1 - 1 year less than Hamilton, 5 years less than Alonso, 8 years less than Button and 9 years less than Raikkonen (all the other champions, bar Michael Schumacher). Looking at it this way then, Vettel has much less experience than the other F1 champions. As well as Vettel's championships, you have to look at his standings in the all-time statistics. Recently, Vettel has hit several milestones of number of wins, consecutive laps led and number of pole positions. While he's not quite topping the boards yet, he's well on his way to beating most of the records held by Michael Schumacher. There are quite a few of these statistics, so I'll summarise below:
  • Vettel has overtaken Senna and Prost for percentage wins, almost level with Jackie Stewart
  • He's equal with Schumacher for number of wins in a season for 2011
  • In 2011 he won 58% of the races - more than Fangio, Mansell and Ascari
  • Vettel is equal with Clark, Brabham, Rindt, Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Alonso, Hill and Button for consecutive wins
  • He's the youngest winner of an F1 race
  • He's third on the all-time list for number of pole positions 
  • He got the most pole positions in a season last year
  • Youngest pole-sitter
  • Just under 50% of starts from the front row
  • 14 consecutive front row starts (Singapore 2010 to Britain 2011)
  • Third in the all time list for number of career points - 1013 (not bad for 5 years' work!)
So, quite a few records to be getting on with for such a young driver! Ok, I know not many of you will be convinced by stats - the age old cry of 'but he has the fastest car' can't be falsified with stats alone, so let me raise a few more points.

When you look at these all time records, Mark Webber (Vettel's teammate) isn't really in contention for any of them. Now, if it was just the car doing the work, surely Webber would be right alongside Vettel for these stats? If not, we have to argue that driver ability plays its fair share of gaining records and taking wins, poles and championships. Admittedly, if you stuck another driver like Alonso in a Red Bull, it would be interesting to see how Vettel compared, but I would think that there wouldn't be much between the two - you'd just end up with two drivers streaking off into the distance.

On this point, how many of you would be prepared to argue that Alonso wasn't a great driver just because the car is also good? While I know a lot of you aren't exactly Alonso fans, I doubt many of you would argue that he doesn't have serious talent in an F1 car. I'd be safe to say that Sky F1 wouldn't be putting Alonso's great performance down to the car should he be driving a Red Bull - so why the discrepancy with Vettel?

A great example of the car doing a lot of the work comes from the 2009 F1 season, where Button and Barrichello were in the Brawns. While both are good drivers and had suffered their fair share of bad luck, 2009 showed how much difference the car made. However, the difference between Brawn and Red Bull is the fact that BOTH drivers were performing relatively equally. This just isn't happening with Webber and Vettel at the moment. This isn't because Webber doesn't have talent - don't forget he was in contention for the championship in 2010 - but maybe Vettel just has that extra something that means he gets the better of the car.

Another argument arises based on the fact that Vettel's championships are simply due to the fact that he had the best car at the time, and streaked off into the lead from the start of the championship. I agree that this was the case last year, however this was not so in 2010, and neither is it the case this season. In 2010, Vettel took the championship at the very last race. He was completely unexpected to do this - while he had a mathematical chance towards the end of the season, the realistic chance wasn't there. If the car was the only element, then the championship should have been Webber's. This year too hasn't exactly been easy. While the performance of the Red Bull has stepped up in the latter half of the season, the first half wasn't as easy as 2011. So, if Vettel gets the championship, it'll be down to more than the car.

Finally, I want to remind you all about the early years of Vettel. While all of his full seasons have been with a Red Bull team, we must remember that the latter half of 2007 and 2008 he completed with Toro Rosso - hardly the best car out there. In the Toro Rosso, Vettel managed a 4th place finish after qualifying 17th in China in 2007, a 5th place from 19th in Monaco in 2008, 8th place in Canada from 19th on the grid, and Vettel also managed to win a race at Monza in the rain. It's been said that to be a great, you have to achieve something in a car that isn't the best. Surely this is a prime example?

So, overall to judge a driver's greatness you have to look at his past achievements in context. A lot of people seem a bit blinded to the fact that Vettel has achieved so much in spite of relatively little experience and - at times - not being in the best car. While it might be annoying that the same driver keeps winning, this doesn't mean that his performance is down to the car alone, and more credit is deserved by Vettel. I know not everyone will agree with me (Jackie Stewart?), but in my opinion, Vettel is one of the greats of F1, and I'm sure he'll carry on doing great things.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Early Starts

We're officially into the closing stages of the 2012 F1 season. The European stretch of the year is over, and now we're onto flyaway races. The Japanese grand prix marked the start of this part of the year, and I have to say it was well worth sacrificing a weekend of catching up on sleep!

Suzuka has been a circuit which has often played a large part in championship deciders. Vettel last year managed to secure his second world championship at this race, long before the season's end. This year however the season is much tighter, with Alonso currently in the lead. Before the race, Alonso had a 29 point lead over Vettel, however as we head into the Korean race this lead has been cut to just 4 points.

Over the course of a season, all the drivers seem to have their fair doses of good and bad luck. At the first part of the season, it looked as though Red Bull and Vettel were getting their bad luck out of the way, while Fernando Alonso's Ferrari could do no wrong. However, in these closing stages of the year the tables seem to have turned somewhat, resulting in the championship being blown wide open again.

This effect on the championship can be put down to the opening lap of the race at Suzuka last weekend. Vettel managed to clinch his fourth pole position at the circuit, and thus pulled off his usual trick of streaking away into the distance once the five lights went out. However, behind the leader things weren't so straightforward: Grosjean pulled away incredibly well from his starting position, however once again he seemed to put his car in completely the wrong place, and had a collision with Mark Webber. The other Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen also got into the danger zone, and ended up giving Alonso a puncture, forcing him out of the race and therefore out of the points. Due to the chaos of these incidents, Nico Rosberg also got into trouble with Bruno Senna, resulting in Senna taking a drive-through penalty.

Once things had settled down in the pack, Vettel extended his lead over someone who you might not expect to be in second - Felipe Massa. Recently, Massa has been under a lot of pressure and has faced a lot of criticism for his driving ability. People have been questioning whether he really deserves his place at Ferrari, and if he is perhaps lacking in pace. However, of late Massa seems to have returned to his old form - the form of 2008 when he almost won the world championship. In my opinion, Massa's driving had never fully recovered after his accident in Hungary. Me being a psychology student and looking to studying traumatic brain injury in the future, you have to wonder whether that accident caused more damage than it appeared on the surface. Brain injuries are tricky things, and recovery can take years, so from the way in which Massa has been driving I'd not be surprised if that incident was responsible for such a loss of form over such a long time. In any case, Massa's skill at driving in Suzuka was enough to earn him his first podium since 2010, and hopefully has silenced some of the doubters out there.

Third place was more of a battle than perhaps the first two steps of the podium. Jenson Button had a good drive after his 5 place grid drop, however in the end he couldn't quite make the third step of the podium. Instead, this went to another surprise: Kamui Kobayashi. While Kobayashi's teammate, Perez, has managed to secure a few trophies this year, things haven't always gone Kamui's way, making the team question whether to keep him for 2013. However, a great drive meant that he secured his first podium of his career, and in front of his home crowd too! In all the years I've been watching F1, I've seen plenty of podium ceremonies. However, up until this weekend I'd never heard a driver's name being chanted before! Having such support out there must have been a fantastic experience for Kobayashi, and no doubt his desire to secure more podiums must have grown.

So, with only one championship runner finishing on the podium, we've got a bit of a fight on our hands for the rest of the season. With five races remaining, I'd be very surprised if anyone other than Vettel or Alonso got the title. However, in this season anything has been possible, and with 125 points left it's still mathematically possible for Raikkonen or Hamilton to sneak in and take the title. Whatever happens in the championship, we're certain that the last five races will be just as thrilling as the previous showdowns along the season. With any luck, the early mornings will be worth it!