Tuesday, 16 October 2012

McLaren have done it again

They've been at the top end of Formula One for so many years in the sport's history, but since 1998, McLaren just can't seem to banish their Championship demons.

But for a team who pride themselves so much on a winning mentality, 2012 has certainly been a season that has gradually been falling apart for the Woking force - and looks set to join the ghosts of the last 14 years in the metaphorical graveyard of Championship challenges that have looked promising only for it to come crashing back down around them.

Martin Whitmarsh has yet to win a Championship as Team Principal
 A combination of bad luck, mechanical failures (look no further than the last race in Korea for the first two points) and unprofessional poor judgement has completely negated the rewards that McLaren should be reaping right now, when it started the season in ominous form with a 1-2 on the first Saturday in Melbourne and now faces another trophyless season, a scrap with Ferrari for 2nd in the Constructors Standings when a battle for the prize was within their sights and the departure of one of the fastest drivers on the grid in Lewis Hamilton, who is beginning to enter his prime and has not put a foot wrong (on the track) all season long.

And while Jenson Button has certainly picked up his form during the course of the early summer and beyond - highlighted by a sublime pole and win at Belgium - questions must be asked of his consistency of being able to challenge for pole. For while his race pace during Korea practice looked particularly eye-opening, Button was unable to make an impression in qualifying as he was knocked out in Q2. Whether that was down to a team miscommunication or the driver not being at one with the car, it is something McLaren need to think about for the future. Especially when you contrast Button's performances against Hamilton in 2012 - the Mercedes-bound man is the only driver to have made every Q3 session this season, taking five pole positions along the way. The best chance to win is from the front - something which Sebastian Vettel proves time and time again - and that can only make life more difficult for McLaren for 2013 onwards, who will have a relatively inexperienced driver in Sergio Perez, partnering a World Champion who has only taken one pole position for his current team throughout his three season story with them.

It is not the first time McLaren has had to potential to be on the top step by season's end. 2005 was seen as a great opportunity to bag their first title since the Hakkinen era of 98/99 but a series of mechanical gremlins condemned McLaren and their latest Finnish talent of Kimi Raikkonen to finish second best once again and opened the door for Fernando Alonso and Renault to become the second World Champions of the new millenium after several years of Schumacher/Ferrari dominance. Raikkonen's famous suspension failure with one lap to go at the Nurburgring perfectly summed up McLaren's fortunes - so close, but yet so far.

The MP4-20 had great speed but unreliability hindered it
And in 2007 an awesome but explosive pairing of Alonso and Hamilton got the job done, only for the team to become embroiled in 'Spygate' and the FIA to disqualify the team from the Constructors Championship. The humiliation was complete when Kimi Raikkonen pipped both of the McLaren drivers to the Championship from the brink.

Since then McLaren have built some strong cars, and have taken their fair share of the victories from 2008 to the present day, yet only have one Drivers Championship (which some would argue was very fortuitous under the circumstances of that afternoon at Interlagos) and the team are still waiting for their first Constructors title in 14 years.

Spygate was McLaren's darkest hour

2012 looked to be painting a different picture at the season opener in Melbourne. A rejuvenated Hamilton led a front row lockout but immediately there were signs that fate was looking to rain on McLaren's parade. Unlucky timing with a safety car deployment meant that Vettel was able to continue at racing speed for the majority of the circuit and pit, while Hamilton had to drive at a preset speed determined by the area he was driving in, which allowed the Red Bull to split the McLaren 1-2. But with 19 races to go, a crushing victory by Jenson Button didn't stop the team from feeling optimistic that this year could well have been there year.

Misfortune denied McLaren the best possible start to 2012
And then pit stop problems began to take centre-stage.

A dodgy pit stop for Hamilton allowed Alonso to jump ahead in the pit lane in Malaysia on his way to an incredible victory in Malaysia as McLaren squandered a front row lockout and another potential 1-2, Button was denied a chance to fight Rosberg for the win at China with a botched stop and Hamilton was once again on the receiving end of two consecutive slow stops at Bahrain, ensuring that a hard-fought 2nd place start was converted into a lowly and frustrating 8th place.

There was only a slight hiccup in the pit stops at Spain as McLaren made a bid to turn their pit stop woes behind them, only for an even greater error to overshadow their pit lane disasters. Lewis Hamilton had taken pole by a mighty 0.5 second gap and it looked incredibly difficult to overcome the McLaren in race trim. But when he was forced to stop on the track on his inlap due to a lack of fuel to carry him back home and give back to the stewards, Hamilton was disqualified and a strong chance of victory was dashed. Only five races in, and the team had made a series of blunders and cost themselves valuable Championship points in what was proving to be a very tight battle that they should have had a firm grip of.

Meanwhile on the other side of the garage, Button was playing to his reputation of being very sensitive with the balance of the car - he was occasionally brilliant, as shown Down Under, but occasionally very sloppy. Car balance struggles placed him in the intense midfield battles in Spain, Monaco (where he spent the entire race studying the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham before he was in the wall laps before the chequered flag) and Canada. And just as it appeared that he had got his act together in Valencia, the performance of the car had fallen away from the rest of the field. Of all the races that McLaren chose to not turn up, it had to be in front of their adoring fans at Silverstone. It was almost as if the story had been scripted from the start.

Button's early season woes were in full view at Monaco

Improved pace from the MP4-27 more often than not benefited only one of the drivers over the next couple of races. The Silverstone response at Hockenheim looked impressive, but a well-earned podium finish for Button contrasted with an unfortunate puncture for Hamilton. The next four races saw four McLaren pole positions, demonstrating that the car looked to be the one to take the fight to Fernando Alonso at the top of the standings, but failure to take maximum points from both drivers meant that it didn't make as much of an impression over the summer as the team would have liked - Hamilton clung onto the win at Hungary while Button dropped from 4th to 6th, while Hamilton crashed at Spa and Button suffered a mechanical failure at Monza as their counter-part went on to taste the victory champagne in the same races.

Singapore saw the team lose 25 crucial points in both the Drivers and Constructors standings as Hamilton's gearbox gave way, while Button inherited 2nd place but simply did not have the pace that his team-mate had to challenge for pole or the win.

And now it seems too little, too late, as Red Bull have upped their game and taken two consecutive front row lock outs and maximised every situation they have been in (without Grosjean's antics at Suzuka, few would have bet against Webber completing a Red Bull 1-2). Meanwhile, Button qualified 11th at Korea and was subsequently taken out in the midfield dicing, while Hamilton suffered a second successive mechanical failure which altered the balance significantly and was lucky to survive with a point after having the misfortune to run over some loose astro turf and have it wrap itself around the car.

Hamilton had everything go against him at Korea
Hamilton is 62 points behind with four races to go, while Button is 84 points adrift and both have ruled themselves out of the title chase. The team have slipped to 3rd in the Constructors Championship, with the gap to Red Bull having almost doubled in the space of one race to 83 points. The 2012 season has gone from a great chance of both titles to having to stare at dust in the trophy cabinet for another year. Where have I seen McLaren do this before..?

The 2013 partnership of Button and Perez will be interesting as both possess a driving style which is kind on the tyres which will help in race conditions. However, with exception of Button at Spa, I have yet to see either consistently deliver truly outstanding qualifying performances given the performance of their car (neither of them are beating their team-mates in the head-to-head comparisons). I personally think McLaren will miss Hamilton next season (who I think letting go was a big mistake for the team but that's another story), especially when a large share of the victories this season have come from the front row of the grid. It adds more fuel to the idea that the team have consistently been complacent throughout the year, and the inability to tie Hamilton down as early as they could might well be seen as a failure as the next few years pan out.

What impression can Perez make for McLaren?

But in the present, once again McLaren look set to be a sideshow rather than a title protagonist as the battle at the top is now realistically down to a two-horse race. 2010 is one of the closest examples to what is happening to the team this season, although Hamilton and Button were involved in incidents that cost them big points and eventually the car performance wilted away as Webber, Alonso and Vettel were left to realistically challenge for the title at Abu Dhabi.

Except in this season of 2012, where the margins are so tight and the competition is fierce, any loss of points means you have a mountain to climb. But in the case of McLaren, any points lost adds more salt to the wound in what should have been their year.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Vettel is a worthy World Champion

There, I said it. It's not even official yet. It's not even being accepted by his rivals. Forget the circumstances of his title win last year and even forget his supposed chinks in his armour. Don't even bother arguing about how some of his victories this season have been through luck. There can be no doubt that Sebastian Vettel is the story of 2011, he's seemingly untouchable and he's most definitely a worthy World Champion.

A crushing qualifying and race performance at a track in Monza, where traditionally the Red Bull has been third best on a good weekend, underlined the best in Vettel and also justified to the critics that his worst has pretty much been eradicated. It was just an average Vettel weekend again that has become all too familiar in 2011. The boy is bulletproof now.

Qualifying was simply vintage Vettel. Leave everybody guessing until the final lap has been set in stone and the hearts in the rest of the pitlane have sunk. His 25th Career pole was simply outstanding, almost half a second up on nearest rival Lewis Hamilton, who had looked determined during Free Practice, and yet Vettel kept a level head on his shoulders in the aftermath in front of the media horde.

"I think we have to go step by step. This weekend we know it is not easy for us, but so far it has been excellent, the main task is coming tomorrow." It has been the same story at every other race weekend so far. A step by step approach, not thinking about the bigger picture in the title race and just focusing on perfecting the finer details, has helped Sebastian achieve 10 poles and 8 wins in 13 races. His most recent effort demonstrates how improved he is from 2010. His ability to pull out a margin when he needs to is currently unrivalled, but add some good starts in and a ballsy overtake around the outside (and some more!) of Alonso at Curve Grande and it seems as if he is impossible to beat.

And yet his psychological approach in front of the public eye is outstanding. All year he has aimed to take maximum points but he is never looking at the table, never taking anything for granted. 2010 taught him this valuable lesson with some high-profile failures in Bahrain, Australia and Korea which almost cost him dear. He knows the best way to win Championships is to be consistently fast and taking points. In stark contrast, his rivals have been concerned with the ever-increasing Championship gap between first and second and have just been praying for a slip up. As a result, the pressure has had a reverse effect. The four drivers below Vettel have consistently been taking points off of each other and are in their own Championship battle, as Mark Webber has already stated: "I think we're all battling for second now."

An accomplished defensive drive vs Hamilton was an early highlight

As for Vettel's handling of pressure this season, you can easily look at the final lap in Montreal and in the first stint at the Nurburgring and say "well, he can't cope with intense pressure." But looking at just the mistakes is easy to do. Take the Spanish Grand Prix, he proved he could definitely hold his nerve. A miscalulated pitstop put Sebastian in traffic but within his outlap he had passed all three cars (who were no slouches in the form of Massa, Button and Rosberg) with ease. The critic would claim that the fresher tyres were the catalyst for Vettel's awesome lap but on a track where overtaking was traditionally non-existent it was a sterling performance. And then later on in the race he absorbed the onslaught of a very racy McLaren of Hamilton to take a hard-fought but well-earned victory. One week later, he took advantage of the circumstance of a red flag to win but prior to the halting of procedings Vettel held firm the widest Red Bull he could possibly create in the streets of Monaco to hold off a faster Alonso and Button for a long period.

It wasn't just at Monaco where Vettel silenced more of his critics. Undercut-influenced overtakes were the cause of most of his early season overtakes but as the season has progressed he has had to produce the goods on the racetrack. Either way, it shows another weakness that Vettel has clearly worked on and improved a lot - his racecraft. As mentioned previously, the race-winning pass early on against Alonso with a move nothing short of brave has just been the icing on the cake. A stunning move around the outside of Rosberg at Blanchimont at Spa was also another highlight. Sure, the battle with Massa at the Nurburgring where he needed his pitcrew to help him out a little was a slight blip but the majority of the time he rarely needs to exercise his wheel-to-wheel prowess because he is simply too far ahead.

Vettel is a changed racer in wheel-to-wheel combat in 2011

The 2011 Championship can be wrapped up in two weeks time at Singapore if Vettel wins and other results fall his way, and at such an early stage of the season it is simply testament to how flawless Vettel has been in the past 13 races. When his worst result has been 4th, everyone just needs to stand up and admire what they are witnessing. Everything about his season has been near-perfection. And when his only potential weaknesses in racecraft has actually been, well, not so weak at all, it would be no surprise at all if the rest of 2011 and beyond will be dominated by just one driver. I salute you, Sebastian Vettel.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Vettel Charging to the Title

As the Formula 1 paddock shuts up shop for a few weeks as the teams and drivers enter a mandatory summer holiday, the anticipation of an exciting second half of the season is building. For many, the Championship looks bleak - Sebastian Vettel extended his lead over second place Mark Webber to 85 points in Hungary last weekend - but that won't take away from the racing, which has seen some of the best Grand Prix racing in years.

For each Championship protagonist, they have put themselves in a no-pressure situation. Ferrari have nothing to lose and everything to gain with Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard lies 89 points behind and has already said that Ferrari must start taking risks in it's maximum attack approach. He shares a similar story with both McLaren drivers - Hamilton is the closest McLaren driver to Vettel but 88 points behind, while Jenson Button's mastermind performance at the Hungaroring decreases his gap to Vettel, albeit four whole race wins behind with 100 points. Even the defending Champion can approach his racing with a sense of no-pressure. Because even if his outstanding consistency in 2011 takes a downward spiral, he can rely on the resurgent duo of McLaren and Ferrari to trip each other up frequently.

Hamilton and Alonso will need to assist each other

Vettel can even depend on his team-mate Mark Webber to get involved and take points off of his rivals. Webber has also been ultra-consistent in 2011, finishing every race between second or fifth and bringing home valuable Constructor's Championship points as well as chipping points off of Red Bull's rivals. The consistency and reliability of Red Bull in general has been supreme - all of the teams feared a Red Bull car with strong reliability statistics, and, forgiving the odd KERS issue here and there, the RB7 has yet to be severely compromised by reliability woes that it's older RB6 machine suffered, most notably in Bahrain, Australia and Korea.

And the outfit from Milton Keynes have been reaping the benefits of a combination of fearsome qualifying pace, a strong driver line-up and bulletproof reliability. What has been a fascinating Formula 1 season has been covered up by 11 qualifying sessions of Red Bull dominance and Sebastian Vettel taking 6 wins in 8 races, bearing similar traits to Jenson Button's title triumph with Brawn GP in 2009. But now he needs to "maintain the gap" - which won't be easy.

Vettel has only taken pole in one of the last three Grand Prix (albeit his team-mate taking the other two), with none of those races being won by a blue and yellow car. Ferrari have consistently proved that they can threaten Red Bull now, with Alonso standing on the podium in the last four races, one of them being on the top step. And now McLaren look to have overcome their dip in form at Valencia and Silverstone and have taken the last two wins and only just missed out on pole in both of those races, underlining their performance and warning Red Bull that the close end of the season won't be the same walkover like it was earlier in the year.

Adrian Newey has upgraded the car to within an inch of what the regulations have dictated and now the teams behind them are catching up faster than they were before. The top three are separated by tenths and track characteristics are going to play an even bigger part going into the final stages of Vettel's 2010 title defence. Spa and Monza will be tough circuits for Red Bull, although it is noteworthy that Mark Webber stole pole position in the Ardennes forest a year ago and an ambitious strategy aided Vettel into a crucial 4th place at Monza. Red Bull need to use all of it's newly found experience to survive a McLaren-Ferrari onslaught at the next two Grand Prix. From then on, the RB7 looks capable of holding it's own, particularly at Singapore and Suzuka. But with McLaren and Ferrari focusing on their weaknesses - McLaren being high speed downforce and Ferrari lacking pace on the Saturday - it looks like the gap is going to be even closer.

Is Newey running out of ideas under these regulations?
But, as we've been seeing all season - particularly in the most recent races - Vettel has had his fair share of good fortune. If it wasn't for the red flag in Monaco, arguably Vettel might have hit the cliff on his super soft tyres and lost a key victory. At the Nurburgring he was fortunate to get away with an early spin and manage to get away with 4th place and 12 key points. And at the most recent event at the Hungaroring, had Hamilton and McLaren not made a crucial blunder by going with the super soft tyres and going against the rest to blow a potential 1-2, Sebastian may not have picked up three extra points. Instead, his Championship lead is increasing or only dropping by tiny margins. Call it luck, or on the flipside you could argue that his low-risk approach has seen his rivals fall by the wayside while he pushes on to collect any scraps. And when he's not capitalising on misfortune for others, he is grabbing pole and sailing off into the distance. The guy looks unbeatable on his day. Unfortunately for everyone else, he's looked every bit a World Champion in every single race.

These next two races are crucial for Red Bull. The team and Sebastian Vettel have destiny in their own hands. They look uncatchable, but be sure that the chasing pack will be giving them as hard a time as possible.