Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Dust has Settled

It's been a week since the last race in Malaysia, and I think we've seen the first big controversy of 2013. F1 is famous for its drama, and let's face it, it wouldn't be the same sport without it. For those of you wondering why it's taken me so long to blog about the latest drama, it's partly because I've been busy with work, partly because I think it's a good think to wait for the dust to settle around these things before chucking my opinion into the fray.

For those of you who have missed the race and have no clue what I'm writing about, Malaysia saw the first 'team orders' incident of the year. Mark Webber had been leading the race for some time, and at the final round of pit stops was set to take the win. However, Sebastian Vettel came out less than a second behind Mark, and saw his chance for victory. It gave us a thrilling lap or two of racing - the two came within inches of each other, and many thought it was Turkey 2010 all over again. However, both Sebastian and Mark are experienced racers, and Vettel overtook without incident.

Now, all of this would have been fine if it was say, Vettel overtaking Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen. However, because he overtook Webber he went against team orders. Lots of people are now very unhappy with Vettel - journalists, fans and F1 insiders alike. Most feel that he should have held station behind Webber, and should not have overtaken. Vettel himself has apologised. He stated that he made a mistake, and should have stayed behind. Although he heard the order, he didn't follow it - perhaps an example of racing instincts taking over. There are a lot of different aspects to this whole situation, and I personally think the outrage against the move says a lot about F1 in general, rather than Vettel as a person.

Vettel has been under fire for many years now. He is an incredibly talented racer - his three world championships are surely testament to this. However, most people consider him to be arrogant, and only able to win because of the speed of the car. I, of course, take a different view. His 2010 championship was completely unexpected, and although the season wasn't without incident, he secured the victory against all the odds. His 2011 championship was dominant. He grabbed pole at most of the races, and took maximum points wherever he could. Last year, 2012, was more of a fierce competition, and I think we saw Vettel at his best this year. The race in Brazil - coming through the back of the field (twice!) - was the best race I have ever watched, and surely put pay to all notions that the guy can't race. With Red Bull and Vettel looking for championship number four this year, we have to expect a fight, and this is what we saw in Malaysia last weekend. As for Vettel being considered arrogant, I disagree. He seems to still have what a lot of champions lose after their first victory: he still enjoys the racing. He always makes the best out of a bad situation, and we rarely see him blaming anyone when he makes a mistake. When he had a DNF in 2011, he didn't disappear off into the motor home, but apparently stayed on the pit wall and helped Mark to take a victory. I doubt this is the sign of arrogance. Plus, having met him at Goodwood last year, I can honestly say that he was a thoroughly lovely guy (staying behind to make sure I had a good picture, even when his minder was trying to get him to hurry away).

Personally, I think a lot of the anger against Sebastian comes from his success. A lot of the time, we don't really like runaway victories. We like the underdog to take the win. Look at the Michael Schumacher era - people hated Schumacher because it was a foregone conclusion that he would win. With F1 today, we don't have this predictability, so I see no reason to treat Vettel in the same way. When the overtaking incident happened last week and the backlash began, I wondered whether people would have reacted the same way if it was Mark overtaking Sebastian. Food for thought.

Overall, I think the overtake between Seb and Mark was a case of racing instincts. Webber could have fought back and gone against the team's wishes as well, but he chose not to. This was his decision, and I've got nothing against either driver for what happened. Contrast this with the team orders given down at Mercedes. Hamilton was in third place and was told to turn down his engine and save fuel. Rosberg was much faster, but held station behind Hamilton. Arguably, we were denied racing at this point. Rosberg tried to argue against the decision, however ultimately he obeyed Ross Brawn and stayed behind. As a fan of racing, I'm disappointed by this. I'm not blaming Rosberg, but I think this is something fundamentally wrong with F1 today.

In Hockenheim 2010, Massa was leading the race. Then, we heard the infamous call 'Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?'. After a few laps, Massa moved out of Alonso's way, and he was handed the victory. Rob Smedly, Massa's race engineer was heard on the radio at this point saying 'sorry'. Everyone was, understandably, outraged. Massa was leading, he was racing, and he was forced to give up the place without a fight. If Alonso was truly faster, then why did the team have to tell Massa to move? This was the era in which team orders were banned, and racing was racing, whether it was your team-mate or a rival.

In 2011, team orders were made legal once again, however this wasn't something that many of us were particularly pleased about. As a fan of F1, I want to see who is the best driver. This is something that we can see with overtaking, and what better a test of driver against driver than racing against someone in the same car as you? It's up to the drivers to avoid hitting one another, and no overtake is without risk. I understand that teams want to maximise their points for the constructors' championship, however to do this at the expense of racing is, in my opinion, wrong.

While I get that Vettel directly disobeyed what his team said, and that many people view this is arrogance, I feel differently about this than most people. I'm much more disappointed by the fact that we were denied a fight between Rosberg and Hamilton, and I think that the Vettel/Webber pass was one of the most exciting parts of the race. Ultimately, it's not my job to define the rules. However, I think we need to get away from team orders in F1. We need F1 to remain a show, and not a procession. Team orders don't facilitate this. Whatever happens though, this drama will blow over and be replaced by another soon enough. That's the only thing we can be certain of in modern F1. Bring on the next race!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Australian Opener

Now while most people consider the 1st of January to be the start of a new year, for those of us into Formula 1 the new year starts somewhat later than this, in mid March. It's a long wait, considering the end of the F1 season is typically in November, and thus we have nearly four months of 'no man's land'. Thankfully, we've made it through the winter (although for us fans in the UK, we still seems to be in the middle of an ice age) and last weekend the new F1 season began.

2012 was an amazing year for F1. We didn't have a single boring race - even though we only had one race in the wet (I guess that kills Bernie's ideas about sprinklers on the side of the track). The first seven races saw seven different winners, and towards the end of the year we had an amazing battle between Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, with the latter clinching the title after the most exciting race I've ever watched. So, with this in mind, we were all waiting to see what 2013 had to offer.

Pre-season testing was the usual affair: F1 journalists tried to tease out little details to give us an indication of things to come, teams were tight-lipped over just what they'd done to the cars, and F1 nerds (like me) realised that there was little point in paying much notice to the times that were posted. Really, the first indication we got of who was placed where came in the first qualifying session of the year.

Australia is a great opening race, however it does have the downside that European fans have to sacrifice a weekend's sleep to watch it. This was fine, if a little painful. So, on Saturday I woke up at 4:45 ready for the hour programme before qualifying and the 6:00 start. Unfortunately, what greeted me was a screen saying 'We apologise for the technical difficulties that we are experiencing'... That's right. A four month wait, to be met with technical difficulties. This wasn't the fault of the broadcaster - a quick delve into the F1 Twitter community informed me that there was a worldwide outage of F1 because of a powercut caused by heavy rain. Thankfully, things were fixed in time for the start of qualifying, and finally we were ready to see the 2013 pecking order.

Well, that's what we thought anyway. Turns out, the rain was so heavy in Albert Park that qualifying was postponed. After a bit of a wait, Q1 was underway, with the six slowest cars eliminated. Then, it rained again. And again. And again. Q2 was postponed by 10 minutes, 20 minutes, restart at 6:50 GMT, cancelled until Sunday morning. Yep. A four month wait, a 4:45am start, and no idea which team was quickest.

So, on Saturday night/Sunday morning, when most students would still be out partying, I got up at 11:45pm to resume qualifying. Thankfully, this time there were no problems, and we discovered that Sebastian Vettel was the fastest man on the F1 grid. Again. Being a die-hard Red Bull/Vettel fan, I was rather pleased at this, however I couldn't celebrate for long as I needed to get a few more hours sleep before the race.

Four hours after qualifying, I was up again (4:30am for those of you wondering just how insane I am). The build up to the race was heightening the tension, and at 6:00 we got going with the 2013 season. Luckily, the race itself showed that we were most likely going to have another thriller of a season. Overtakes, many different race leaders (including the Force India of Adrian Sutil - pretty good comeback from him!), and an unexpected race winner - Kimi Raikkonen. What more could you ask for?

Annoyingly, I've noticed a trend for F1 journalists to predict who is going to win the championship as soon as the chequered flag falls. While Kimi undoubtedly has had the best start (25 points all in all), let's not forget that Alonso and Vettel are right behind. With 18 races left to go, it seems to me that anyone from the top three teams (which are apparently Lotus, Red Bull and Ferrari) has a great shot, although I would expect that Mercedes are chasing hard, and McLaren will sort out whatever problems are plaguing them in order to give Button (or even Perez) a chance. So, 18 races, 9(ish) months... It's going to be an interesting one!