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.

Friday, 29 July 2011

The Sky's the limit?

After being put under pressure I've decided to get back blogging and writing about the sport I love. I've spent a few hours putting some ideas together on what I could write about, but a shock announcement literally overnight (is anything ever a shock when it comes to F1?) pretty much handed me a storyline that has the potential to impact the long-term future of Formula 1 broadcasting in the UK.

The news that the UK broadcasting of Formula 1 from 2012 onwards will be split by the BBC and Sky has sent shockwaves through the paddock and the general Formula 1 community. I'm a frequent tweeter and the first reactions of many have been of anger, frustration and disappointment that the BBC will broadcast 10 full race weekends instead of the full 2012 season, with Sky taking over the reins. And this isn't just a trial run - the sharing deal lasts until 2018, forcing fans to pay up for a Sky Sports subscription or be left with less access. It sets a stark contrast to when the BBC took the rights back from ITV in 2009, with uninterrupted coverage of practice, qualifying and races (and all the little bits before and after) free of charge.

It's all about cutting costs at the BBC in a difficult economic period
 There's no doubt the BBC coverage has been stellar and has continued to go from strength to strength. This has had a significant impact as the F1 fanbase grows stronger, evidenced with some outstanding viewing figures, even during and most particularly the marathon Canadian Grand Prix. But, like with Grand Prix racing itself, all good things have to come to an end, as the BBC has had to cut back it's Formula 1 offerings in a bid to save money. The BBC runs very differently to other TV channels, relying on the licence fee more than anything else, and cannot afford to meet the demands of a Formula One Management that shows no mercy when it comes to funds. And this is where Sky come in.

With piles of money larger than Eddie Jordan's pile of unfashionable clothes, Sky never appeared off of the radar when the rumours started circulating over the future of BBC F1 coverage. Takeover rumours were quickly hushed down but Sky taking the rights to future F1 seasons always remained. Channel 4 and Channel 5 were suggested, but evidently nothing has materialised. The arguments against F1 going to Sky, coming from concerned Team Principals such as McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh, was that the fanbase was never going to be as large if Formula 1 was on pay TV, which would make sponsors unhappy resulting in more teams pulling out with financial difficulties. On the plus side, FOM and the teams have got a massive financial boost as Sky allegedly have paid more for the full rights than the BBC ever did. And with the BBC offering non-pay TV viewers a taster of what Formula 1 is like, fans will be queueing up to buy subscriptions to watch the full season. It's a win-win situation for Sky, who have access to every single race weekend from 2012 onwards. The BBC, however, have had to compromise severely, instead offering full radio coverage across every weekend as well as a highlights shows at the end of every Grand Prix.

Get ready for Sky's coverage featuring British Heroes Hamilton & Button!

What will be interesting, however, is the direct comparison in viewing figures between the BBC and Sky when both broadcasters show the same Grand Prix. The BBC's impartial coverage has been fantastic over the past two seasons and free-to-view figures are traditionally a lot higher than subscription channels, as demonstrated by WRC coverage in recent years, but will the lure of live coverage be too much for non-Sky customers come 2012? Only time will tell.

Vettel given food for thought

Despite the calls that it was a matter of not "if" but "when" the rain would fall at the German Grand Prix, a significant downpour failed to threaten the racing and a fantastic spectacle. However, dark clouds will still be hanging over the Red Bull camp, as their dominance over the rest of the field becomes ever closer to being non-existent. Sebastian Vettel in particular, whose calm and measured approach to 2011 has been taken with that of an experienced Champion despite being only 24, could be forgiven for thinking he can afford a mistake or two and play a conservative game. The action in Germany confirmed that this would not be the case, as Vettel made a costly mistake early on and had his Championship lead slashed by resurgent drives from Hamilton, Alonso and team-mate Webber.

How many times will we see this in the second part of 2011?
Early pace in free practice at the Hungaroring is that McLaren and Ferrari look to continue the trend that was set at the Nurburgring by posing a constant threat to the Red Bulls from here on in. While you shouldn't read too much into the times at this early stage, with Webber 4th and the reigning Champion in 5th, the times between all three cars look very comparable. Remarkably, the Hungarian Grand Prix has sprung up exciting races, none more so than in the past few seasons where Webber fought hard to claim a great win and a resurgent McLaren broke their 2009 troubles with Hamilton's first win as a Champion. McLaren need look no further for inspiration to reignite their Championship challenge. It's all to play for in Budapest.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Upping the Dosage

A few weeks back, to coincide with my first blog article, I put a poll alongside my entries on the left hand side asking the fans themselves what they thought of the new-for-2011 Drag Reduction System. Admittedly, I got a lot more responses than I was expecting (the F1 2011 Preview certainly contributed to a lot more exposure) so thank you to those that shared their thoughts!

Out of 114 votes, a massive 71% of those votes believed that DRS was good for Formula 1 and really contributed to the racing, which I'm inclined to agree with. The system isn't greatly overpowered and solely relied on so it can only be a great thing for the sport in my opinion.

However, I'm also not blind in regards to the other features of the F1 2011 package that have really made this season a classic. The return of KERS has brought a different type of strategy into the mix, but the Pirelli tyres have arguably had the biggest impact on the spectacle, with teams trying to call each other's bluff and get the strategy absolutely nailed on the head. It has led to some incredible racing which I think no-one can deny.

Despite this, Pirelli are trying to take a more conservative approach as the season progresses, aiming for two stops rather than three or four, which is fair enough; tyre manufacturers have to prove they can make reliable tyres after all! But as Pirelli tries to merge into the background, the FIA aren't resting on their laurels and are looking for more ways to improve the show. It looks like double DRS zones are in for the remainder of the season.

One DRS zone isn't enough for the FIA
I'm a big fan of DRS. Any way to improve the show, great. However, I'm a bit sceptical over how the FIA has set this double DRS zone up. A quite incredible Canadian Grand Prix was covered up by the rain and therefore we didn't see the full potential when the double DRS zones made their debut just over a week ago, but from the little dry running we saw at the end, I wasn't really impressed with the setup of the zones.

Prior to the race weekend I was under the impression that if the defending car was overtaken down the first straight, they'd be able to fight back straight away with their own DRS device. However, the one and only detection zone - at the start of the first zone - gives the car behind access to DRS for both zones. Michael Schumacher was helpless eventually in his defence against Webber and a rejuvinated Button as Schumi lost two positions in the space of seconds. While Button's overtake wasn't done and dusted until the second DRS zone, Webber had the job completed before the final chicane and was then able to pull away once he was given access to open his letterbox up again. Schumacher didn't stand a chance and, to the anguish of his fans, he just missed out on his first comeback podium.

The two zones in Valencia are a little spaced apart from each other, with a slow three corner section separating the two longest straights on the circuit. However, the one detection zone remains. Why the FIA haven't added another detection point just before the second zone is beyond me. The straights aren't going to be short, and the gains for the car that crosses the detection zone within a second of the car in front is going to be huge. The overtake will be completed down the first straight and then they can pull out a sizeable gap in the second straight so the losing car can't fight back on the next lap.

It's not as if we don't see overtaking anywhere except the DRS straight. We've seen such a variety of overtakes in places which were quite unusual in past seasons. Monaco, for instance, we saw more overtakes at parts of the track where there wasn't a DRS zone so it's not as if the sport is depending on DRS to generate all of the excitement. The introduction of a double DRS zone may be with good intentions to try and increase the spectacle, but I think it's going to cause quite the opposite if the FIA don't get it right.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Be the Driver, Live the Life, Go Compete: F1 2011 Preview

E3 is quickly coming around the corner and the world is waiting to see F1 2011 in motion. There are many questions to be answered following an impressive, if slightly messy, first showing in 2010. However, from personal experience alone, the fans are about to get the answers they've been craving for the past six months. Fans and newbies alike will be pleased to know that Codemasters are aiming for the finer details in F1 2011 which contributes to the overall experience.

Codemasters lines itself up on the grid for a second time in 2011
I was very fortunate to gain early access to the 2011 edition, after being one of a select group to win the recent Codemasters "Call for Questions" competition and, despite a host of upgrades and tweaks to the overall games, the 2010 veterans will feel instantly right at home in the cockpit once again.

As you would expect, everything to do with 2011 is in the game and 100% authentic. The 12 teams and 24 drivers (unfortunately no Robert Kubica this time around, get well soon) all feature, and at least 19 circuits are included, although I was informed that Codemasters are seeking clarification over the Bahrain situation and are leaning towards placing it in the game even if the circus chooses not to go there. The 2011 rules also feature prominently. KERS and DRS are major features in the racing action and there is also a heavy emphasis on getting the tyre model right for 2011. Surprisingly, Codemasters duo Stephen Hood and Paul Jeal acknowledged at the Competition Event that getting the tyres right in recent years was not a necessity due to the real life extreme durability of the Bridgestone compounds. This looks set to change in F1 2011, with Pirelli entering the sport and generating high degredation tyres (see further down).

One of the big questions last year was how will the cars handle? Codemasters proved in 2010 that they are capable of leaning towards a simulation model, but the team look set to reach even greater heights. The handling has come on leaps and bounds over it's 2010 namesake. A major suspension overhaul has given the model a much-needed boost, with some positive and noticeable consequences. Players can feel the weight shift from right to left as you fly through the turn 11/12 chicane at Melbourne. Kerbs are now easier to attack and survive. Oversteer is also controllable (hurray for the little Lewis Hamiltons within you!) and easy to catch, in contrast to the vast amount of wheelspin that players endured in 2010 which always ended up with a spin that could never be caught, urging people to be more cautious than Jenson Button in a glass factory. The updates have also ensured that the cars are capable of braking quicker and later like their real life counterparts, so turn 1 at Interlagos can be taken from just 50 metres away and most of Monza is no longer a long braking zone. Once again Codemasters are aiming high and the handling improvements look set to be a hit with the fans.

The handling department are working extra hard on the tyres for 2011, with driving style having an impact on how the tyres will behave. Continuous locking up or press too hard on the brake and you risk flatspotting a crucial set of tyres that need to be treasured throughout the weekend, not just the race alone. Pushing really hard to create a gap can come at the risk of pitting earlier and being on the back foot in the closing stages of the race. The tyres are shaping up to make sure races, both offline and online (more on that later), are hotly contested until the drivers are out of the car and celebrating a hard-fought victory. Whether Codemasters include all of the compounds - such as the super-soft or the medium compounds (with their respective colour bandings) - remains to be seen, but there will be the fast, but quick-degrading option tyre and the slower, yet more durable prime tyre to spice up the racing and give strategy freaks a major headache while blasting down a straight at break-neck speed.

It's all about strategy and tactics in F1 2011
And as if that wasn't enough to maintain while you're fighting it out with 23 other competitors, there are other greater headaches to get around, all of which will please the F1 nuts but may be a bit too much to take in for a rookie. The fuel mixture and engine modes will play a bigger role in this year's edition, with the game informing you how many laps down or up you are on fuel, giving you an easy answer whether you can afford to up the engine mode to a quicker setting or not. Fuel conservation in the early stages can really pay off in 2011 as the focus is all about in the long run and where you will be in the closing stages. Additionally, as the fuel burns off throughout a Grand Prix, the balance will change. In 2010, players had the ability to adjust their front wing, much like their heroes on the real circuit. However, the 2011 rules have blocked this, but Codemasters have filled the void. Schumacher fans rejoice; brake bias is in. Players can switch the bias to the front, rear or to a balanced setting in a similar way to changing fuel mixtures.

It's all part of Codemasters' bid to give more power to the driver. The pitlane is another example of this. Players can drive right into the zone where they hit the limiter rather than be automatically taken over 200 metres before the white line. I only found this out when I went to pit on a 20% race at Istanbul and expected to be automatically guided by the game into the pitlane, only to smash into the barrier. It may not be full control in the pitlane, but, like many other features, it's a step in the right direction.

On the subject of the pits, making a pitstop is a crucial element of Grand Prix racing. The old lovable Geordie Race Engineer of 2010 has been scrapped (no longer will you be recommended a set of "Intermeeeeediates") and has been replaced by an engineer who may not be as much of a personality as Rob, but will deliver relevant information, both in the singleplayer experience and online. Additionally, the car OSD has been modified to detail what predetermined lap you will be pitting and what position the game is expecting you to file out into if your crew get the job done quickly. It gives the driver the necessary information and acts as an incentive to either push to get ahead of the traffic behind you or give you the opportunity to put in some fuel saving laps. These are little improvements but contribute to the bigger picture, and all of the little bits of info will be appreciated by all.

Pushing hard to jump traffic can have long-term consequences
The damage model has also been given a lot of TLC in F1 2011. Hood and Jeal said that the cars were built tough in 2010 as they were unsure how the players would cope with a fragile and delicate model. But now that players across the world have had a year to break into the concept of clean racing with minimal contact, Codemasters are pushing the boat out further in 2011. There is now a bigger consequence for making contact with those around you, as the cars are now a lot more sensitive to contact. Get too close to a sidepod with your wheel and your suspension could pack in and your race is over before it has even begun. As part of the damage system, mechanical failures return to a Formula 1 game after a year on the sidelines. Failures include what you would expect; engines can blowout and brakes can give up the ghost. However, more intriguing of all is the inclusion of long-term failures. For example, KERS can be a frequent issue in a race or one of the gears has disappeared. 2011 urges players to find a balance between driving very carefully and on the limit when they need to be.

Graphically, and judging by the screenshots alone, the game looks a lot more polished than it's 2010 outing. The circuits that featured in last year's game have all been updated and cleaned up, both in terms of scenery and track faults - Chapel corner at Silverstone is now fixed, and the new Wing looks spectacular in-game. Expect the tyres to show obvious signs of degredation, marbles to show off of the racing line and some spectacular wet weather effects. The innovative dynamic weather system has been taken to a new level for F1 2011, with dynamic clouds featuring in the action. Players can see clouds forming and see them move over a particular part of the circuit and you can see different intensities of rain falling at various sections of the track, which is important now that the Intermediate and Wet compounds have been refined to react to different levels of standing water. Spa-Francorchamps just became another nightmare. Oscillating bodywork is in, so finally we'll be able to witness first-hand the magic of the Red Bull flexi-wing and other parts such as the rear wing and mirrors. Let's just hope the McLaren T-Cam isn't moveable.

Can you see it flexing?
The Codemasters outfit have added a new tagline onto it's 2010 "Be the Driver, Live the Life" motto. "Go Compete" is the developer's way of saying that the multiplayer wasn't up to scratch in 2010, and has been given a lot of affection in the development of 2011. 24 cars can feature online, albeit only 16 of those spaces can be filled with human players, which means races can now feature two of each car - to the delight of fans and racing leagues alike. Online multiplayer also features an all-new Co-op mode, where two friends can hook up online and participate in a season long Championship, with all Practice, Qualifying and Race sessions if they are required. Players can choose to race together in one team or go head-to-head in rival teams. McLaren and Ferrari rivalries look set to be taken to a new virtual level in 2011. Splitscreen is also in the game following it's reintroduction in Codemasters' recent release of DiRT3. Whether father and son, brother or sister or any other splitscreen combinations can be taken online remains to be seen, but multiplayer is definitely in the new and improved B-Spec car this season.

There a lot of cool little features that players are going to appreciate a lot. Track marshals look set to make an appearance, with screenshots hinting that they will be out in force waving yellow or blue flags when needed. Hand animations in the cockpit work when DRS and KERS is used by the players. Garage visuals have improved greatly, there is a lot more action and chaos going on as engineers prepare for the session. There is also the small inclusion of the safety car, which will be difficult to implement for the Codemasters team but, if the team manage to include it, could be a crucial part of strategic racing ('strategic' not being hit somebody off to cause a safety car and bunch the field up.. ahem). And, best of all, Parc Ferme animations at the end of the race are in, so players on the podium can have their opportunity to see their drivers get out of the car and celebrate with their team, or use the cutscene as an opportunity to show off and brag that you're better than your other mates who have to sit and watch.

From the amount of new features that have been promised for this year, the next time you boot up F1 2010 you'll be thinking how horrible and bare it is and how much Codemasters missed out. But, given the major success and rave reviews it received last September, you would have thought that everything had been poured into it. F1 2011 is looking good in the practice session, but can it deliver in the race?

F1 2011 is out on the 23rd September 2011.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My New Found Love

In 2011 you could be well forgiven for only having the time to follow Formula One. It has thrown up some classics this season. But this weekend, with no F1 on the TV schedule, I highly recommend looking to other motorsport alternatives this weekend to satisfy your hunger for good, high-action racing.

With the MotoGP having somewhat going downhill in terms of spectacle following a thrilling wet race in Jerez earlier on in the season, you might want to spend your Sunday watching something else. Hence, may I guide you towards one of British motorsport's gems - the British Touring Car Championship.

It's been a long five-week hiatus from some great action at Thruxton where the turbo-charged Hondas of Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden rubber-stamped their marks on their Championship ambitions, each leading a 1-2 between them in race 1 and 2 amid some traditional touring car chaos. And that's the beauty of this Championship.

The series started to open my eyes in 2010 when I watched a few events during the season (most notably the Donington Park event where there was chaos in race 1 between the leaders) but it wasn't until Brands Hatch Indy at the start of 2011 when I've really begun to take a real interest in the category. 

The days are long, with three main races spread out across the day between 11am and 6pm, the support races are intriguing and action packed, the drivers aren't your superstar prima donnas that Formula One drivers maybe appear to be at times and, best of all, the category is very accessible. ITV4 presents strong coverage of the events, with a great commentary duo of Ben Edwards and Tim Harvey to guide you through the action. And if getting up close and personal to the action is more your thing, tickets for the whole weekend won't cost you an arm or a leg like many Formula One events want you to give these days.

But of course, the event wouldn't be the same if the BTCC didn't feature the close, hard and exciting racing that the category has become famous for. I would imagine there's been closer competition before in previous seasons (I hope you can forgive my lack of historical knowledge on the BTCC) as the Honda Civics look mighty - the Red Bull of the BTCC, if you will - but, just like F1, there are a lot of variables to consider which makes the BTCC so exciting to watch. The turbo-charged cars are a lot heavier on their tyres which brings the normally-aspirated cars such as the Chevrolet Cruze back into the fray.

The 2011 Season has been great from the start at Brands Hatch
The reverse-grid races at the end of the day are always entertaining to watch, with faster cars out of position and charging their way up the field. It leads to some spectacular action and keeps the audience hooked right until the end. But it's not just the reverse grids that provide all the dramatics. It only took two corners into the season to see the first crash, with MacDowell taking out former Champion Matt Neal, and in race 2 at Donington we saw Jason Plato exit the race in most spectacular fashion after mounting a hill and proceding to roll multiple times.

And, with all of the accidents and safety cars that frequently occur, they even add on laps to the lap count as the safety car comes in. More action for us!

Crashes and carnage aside, the racing is incredible and frantic. I wonder how there are so many different cars, from Honda Civics to SEAT Leons and to Toyota Avensis', yet the performance difference is at times marginal. The straight-line power of the turbo-charged cars mixing it with cars that typically beat them off the start, such as the BMW 320si's, is very exciting to watch. It really is a great sight to see a plucky Volkswagen Golf mix it with established BTCC racers such as the Cruze or the BMW.

I'm loving the BTCC this season. I may not be the biggest fan, or know the most about the sport, but I bloody love the show they put on at each event. And I highly recommend that you watch the race day at Oulton Park this coming Sunday at 11.30am. I promise you won't be disappointed by what you see.

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Classic case of Deja vu

It's what every fan wants to see every season and every race. A unique and extraordinary race that will be spoken about for years to come, a "classic" Grand Prix. This year we've seen no less than five intriguing races out of five, all worthy of being labelled with classic status. It seems that the desire for a classic race every weekend is making the label that was barely used in the early stages of last decade become almost cliche today. It could be argued that the past four seasons alone have all had moments that stood out as a classic, but will they stand the test of time in ways that golden F1 moments such as Senna and Prost colliding at Suzuka, Schumacher infamously taking out Jacques Villeneuve or the Japanese Grand Prix of 2005?

2007 was an incredible season in many different ways. We saw some fantastic tussles for position between the Championship protagonists, intra-team relationships reaching boiling point and controversy on and off of the track. There are so many moments in 2007 that could be seen twenty years down the line as a fan's favourite.

Hamilton, Alonso and Raikkonen were at their brilliant best in 2007
The whole season could be defined as a classic season, that's just how good it was. Three drivers were at the top of their game all season long. Double World Champion Fernando Alonso made his "dream" move over the winter to McLaren in a bid to defend his crown. To Great Britain's delight, rookie hero Lewis Hamilton was living up to his reputation and delivering a series of stunning podiums and, maybe even better to the tabloids, was really grinding Alonso's gears all season long. A fascinating intra-team relationship was strained all season long, particularly at the events at Monaco, Indianapolis and Hungary. And as if that wasn't enough for McLaren, they had to contend with F1 politics and being accused of spying against Ferrari midway through the season.

In the end it all proved too much for the team and the drivers, who hit self-destruct and handed the title on a plate to F1's nearly-man Kimi Raikkonen, who had come close before but to no avail. 2007 will be remembered for a number of things - a new star in Hamilton had firmly established himself into the sport, Alonso had a weakness and Raikkonen was at his supreme best, which arguably was the last time we saw the Iceman himself at 110%.

The decline of the 2007 World Champion and the departure of Alonso to Renault meant that the 2008 title was left to the be fought out with Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. 2008 will mostly be remembered for that famous last lap at Interlagos, where the fate of the World Champion shifted between the McLaren and the Ferrari. Hamilton came out on top at the very last corner of the Championship, passing an ailing Timo Glock on dry tyres for a crucial 5th place in the race. But it wasn't just the thrilling climax at Brazil that made the 2008 season.

Seven of the twenty two 2008 drivers won a Grand Prix

The close competition between all of the teams can be highlighted, with seven different drivers spanning five different Constructors teams winning a share of the 18 races that were up for grabs. Who can forget Sebastian Vettel making his name on the world stage with a sensational maiden pole and win at Monza, Robert Kubica taking advantage of a calamitous error from Hamilton in the Montreal pitlane to deliver his first win a year on from his terrifying crash and Heikki Kovalainen getting the job done at the Hungaroring following a dramatic engine blowout with two laps remaining for the Ferrari of Massa. Don't forget the epic showdown between Raikkonen and Hamilton at Spa which spiced up an otherwise ordinary event. These races helped mould the characters of the next generation of Formula One stars.

But 2008 also had some tragedy. Popular minnows Super Aguri withdrew their Championship entry after the Spanish Grand Prix, while newly renamed Force India were on the brink of a breakthrough at Monaco with Adrian Sutil running 4th in the closing stages, and on the verge of delivering the team's first ever World Championship points, only to be cruelly denied by an out-of-control Raikkonen. The 2008 season could be regarded as a classic, with excitement, drama and heartbreak featuring throughout the year.

2009 was a very unusual year and could well be branded as a classic in some aspects. New regulations were set in place to boost overtaking, with higher rear wings, wider front wings and the introduction of KERS, which could only be a good thing. But what made the season was the collapse of Honda and the Phoenix-esque rise from the ashes of Brawn GP, who dominated the season with Jenson Button in the first half of the season, and the fall of McLaren, Ferrari and Renault who ran at the top of the pecking order at the end of the previous season. Brawn GP looked to have the titles in the bag halfway through the year, only for Button to suddenly drop in form in the second part of the season, just as Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari picked up the pace.

Most the races were processional at the front of the field, but some can be highlighted as potential classics. Australia 2009 saw the fairytale begin, with a Brawn GP 1-2 overshadowing some impressive drives from Trulli and Hamilton, with the latter being disqualified for lying to the stewards. Don't forget Mark Webber's maiden victory at the Nurburgring, overcoming a drive through penalty and taking advantage of cool conditions to defeat the Brawn of Barrichello, followed by an emphatic and emotional team radio broadcast. But 2009, for me, will be mostly remembered by the race where Button clinched the Championship at Interlagos. A wet qualifying ruined numerous driver's chances, with Vettel and Button failing to make Q3 but Jenson made a storming charge through the field, making some brave moves into turn 1 to take the Championship with one round remaining. And who can forget Kobayashi's exciting introduction to the sport? The race was most definitely one of the best of '09, with overtakes across the board and some very aggressive strategies from Button, Hamilton and Vettel to get back into the points. It was a thrilling penultimate race of the 2009 season.

Kobayashi starred but Button got the job done at Brazil 09
The race in Brazil quenched the thirst of many for an exciting Grand Prix, but the fans were in for a treat in 2010. A dull procession at Bahrain was duly followed by three incredibly exciting races in a row, particularly at Melbourne and Shanghai. Despite the extreme durability of the Bridgestone tyres limiting the strategic element of racing, the weather conditions certainly mixed things up throughout the season, with Australia, China, Belgium and inaugural race at Korea throwing up some absolute gems. Also don't forget the significance of the Canadian Grand Prix - if Bridgestone didn't make a mistake and bring tyres with high degredation on the slippery surface, would we see Pirelli making unpredictable tyres in 2011? Include the intra-team squabble at Red Bull at Turkey and Silverstone, the return of a Formula One Legend in Michael Schumacher and an epic five-way tussle for the title between drivers, who had spells of being untouchable and not being able to stop crashing, and it was quite an incredible season.

Will 2010 be a season to remember in 2030?
In most of the minds of the fans the 2010 season was definitely one of the ultimate F1 seasons in history. We were given the great pleasure of witnessing a phenomenal 19 races, where there were plenty of overtakes, mistakes, crashes, drama and a grown man breaking down in tears as the final chequered flag fell at Abu Dhabi. There can be no doubt 2010 was a classic season in every way imaginable.

2011 looks like it is building upon the successes of 2010 and more, with hundreds of overtakes in the first five races alone. But is there a point where each race has been enhanced so much by tools such as DRS and KERS that there will be a time when people say that the gimmicks have more of an impact on the racing than the drivers themselves and none of the races are particularly standout in history? The craving for a great race every weekend from the fans could turn a magical sport into something of a gimmick itself. What I want are races that make me stand back and think, "wow, that kept me on the edge of my seat all race long" and I think 2011 is absolutely delivering on that front so far.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Has Monaco had its day?

In a world where overtaking, action and spectacle is the order of the day from the fans, Formula One has delivered yet again, bringing in excitement and unpredictability to a sport once famed for one driver domination and processional races. Now as the circus comes around to the streets of Monte Carlo, one of the tighter circuits with a reputation for featuring little overtaking, I'm going to potentially bite a bullet and question whether Monaco is a suitable circuit for 2011 Formula One. 

No, I'm not coming at this with a view that I don't like the venue. Personally I think it's a spectacular circuit with incredible views of the harbour and the scenery around the Principality that provides a gorgeous backdrop to the action. It truly separates the ordinary drivers from the great. Who can forget Robert Kubica's sensational qualifying lap in 2010? And there's never usually a Grand Prix without incident. Rosberg's high-speed crash in 2008 instantly springs to mind for me. But with less emphasis being on urgently charging past and risking accident in favour of strategy in 2011, will we even see the first safety car in Monaco this season? 

So just how much of an effect will the new rules have on the Monaco Grand Prix? With KERS, it doesn't look likely that the system will generate anything too exciting, with each driver's device cancelling each other out and so the main talk prior to the race weekend has been whether DRS can be deemed safe to use around the streets where downforce is a big requirement if the drivers want to stay out of the barriers. Many drivers have been quick to downplay the impact of DRS during the Grand Prix, warning that the DRS zone down the start/finish straight will not be long enough and the braking zone into the newly-relaid Saint Devote will not able to fit two abreast. DRS has also been limited this weekend with the banning of the device in the Monaco tunnel.

And on that note, just how safe is the Monaco track? Many other blogs and websites have raised the point that the banning of the use of DRS in the Monaco tunnel is a virtual acceptance that the corner is not safe - at the very least. Who knows if the cars could or could not use DRS through the tunnel? World Champion Vettel has been an ace with the device in qualifying, using it in places where I would not have imagined an average car to use it - for example, the flatout right hander of turn 5 in Melbourne and the final corner at Catalunya last weekend. But all it takes is one accident sometimes and the FIA are fully aware of this. So why is Formula One still visiting Monaco if there are doubts over the safety of even one corner?

There is no doubt Monaco has some of the most picturesque scenery on the calendar
However, the World's Greatest Show still needs to put on a show this weekend, and it seems that the excitement factor in the Monaco Grand Prix will rest on the degrading shoulders of the Pirelli tyres. Expect a fascinating race where the red-banded super soft tyres will make it's F1 debut, which Pirelli have estimated will last approximately 10 laps. We're surely in for some exciting strategic choices this coming weekend, as teams look for ways to avoid being tangled up in traffic and backmarkers early on. One element of the excitement has been through the overtaking as well as the strategy, and I fear Monaco is not going to exceed expectations in this category. Of course, if the rules can spice up a race at Catalunya then it surely can cook up a storm in Monaco and I'm sure anything can happen, and it usually does.

But if the race doesn't deliver, what next? I'm not saying it will, and even then, the venue is incredibly popular amongst fans, teams and drivers alike so it's most likely to stay on the calendar, especially after negotiating a longer stay in Formula One for the foreseeable future. It's going to be a tight squeeze to fit in the United States and Russian Grand Prix in the next few years however and some countries are going to face the inevitable drop, Bernie can't keep them all if he wants to maintain a 20 race maximum season. If the rules have fulfilled the need for an exciting race at a track such as Catalunya then it would be expected to work at every other circuit left on the calendar in 2011. Honestly I can't ever see Monaco being dropped off of the calendar for a long time but it's going to be a great shame to lose other circuits such as Melbourne and Istanbul, should they face the axe. Do you think that, just because of it's blue-riband status, Monaco should stay? I don't think it's been exciting enough compared to other Grand Prix, but I could easily be proven wrong come Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 20 May 2011

DRS - Exciting Tech or Burning Wreck?

DRS has quickly turned from hero to zero in the eyes of F1 fans as the 2011 season has begun to take shape. Forgive the nice rhyming (but probably awful) title but I think it well represents the two sides to the DRS debate - fans are torn over how successful the device has been with regards to contributing a better spectacle, with many arguing that DRS is an effective tool which has helped mix things up across the field amongst contrasting views that DRS has generated false overtaking and, as a result of Formula One trying to make races unpredictable, made overtaking very predictable. So far, however, the only thing that is predictable is that the debate looks set to rage on all season long.

Formula One 2011 is most certainly an active and ongoing experiment and therefore things are going be exaggerated or some things are not going to be as effective as first thought. The Pirelli tyres can be marked under both of these categories, for instance. The aim of exaggerating the degredation on the tyres has achieved a high number of pitstops which really mixes things up, and that, for me, is exciting. However, as evidenced by Pirelli trying out more durable compounds in Friday Practice in Istanbul and using them at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix, the prime tyre has clearly not produced Pirelli's ambition of producing a slower, but more durable tyre to give teams more flexibility in race strategy.

DRS has contributed to spectacular races but is it too exaggerated?
The same can be said of the DRS system. Three of the four opening Grand Prix has featured at least one long straight where DRS has been extremely effective and, arguably, exaggerated to such an extent that an outbraking duel is not even required by the end of the straight. For example, at Istanbul and China we saw cars sailing past each other which hints that the system may be too strong. However, as seen in Melbourne, a shorter straight still saw overtaking but it still gave the defending car a chance to maintain track position. Melbourne demonstrated that DRS was balanced and fair to both drivers involving in a fight. But a shorter straight meant that most of the time the drivers needed to be a bit closer than 1 second to the car in front. I remember watching the TV, seeing a car pop it's wing open and not even challenge the guy in front. Therefore, you could suggest that DRS is underperforming on tracks with a shorter straight such as Melbourne. As I previously suggested, DRS is part of the F1 2011 Experiment, and it's going to take a full season to understand how effective DRS is at each circuit. As a result, we're going to get races like we had at Turkey where cars sailed past each other and races like Melbourne where DRS won't have as much of an impact.

The fans need to take into account the other rules that have been in the spotlight in 2011 which could also possibly contribute to the effectiveness of DRS. The Pirelli tyres have definitely added something special to the racing and strategy finally plays a big part in a Grand Prix again after a 2010 season where (with the exception of Canada) refuelling was banned and one stop was the norm. The difference in compounds is also clear and degredation has been a massive factor in the races as the results are not set in stone until the chequered flag falls. The difference in speed between a car with fresh tyres and a car with worn tyres has been demonstrated time and time again this season. We've seen Sebastian Vettel make a bold move around the outside of an ailing Jenson Button at Melbourne, Button and Hamilton struggling at Turkey and Malaysia respectively and, most notably, Hamilton catching and ending Vettel's unbeaten start to the season at China. Overtakes alone have been generated by cars struggling on old tyres and being caught out, which is exaggerated further by DRS. Cars struggling on the exit of turns 9 and 10 at Turkey tended to be on the backfoot which made DRS usage easy.

Let's also not forget the use of KERS and it's strategic use in Grand Prix. A combination of KERS and DRS can also be a reason why we've seen cars passing each other for fun. But it's not just on a DRS straight where KERS has been a useful tool in racing. Drivers used KERS to great effect down the start/finish straights at China and Turkey which just goes to show that DRS isn't necessarily being relied on by the drivers to get by each other. It's simply just a tool to enhance the racing on one point of the track.

KERS strategy was important in the battle for the China lead
My personal feeling is that DRS is fantastic and that it keeps the fans (I can only speak for myself really) on the edge of their seats all the way through the races. The battles have been frantic and exciting and cars passing and repassing each other is great fun to watch. Results are unpredictable until they are set in stone and the drivers, in particular Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso, believe that the system is a step in the right direction to improve the spectacle. Yes, the system does need finetuning but that can easily be done by making the slot gap smaller or the DRS zone shorter. Also, consider what DRS would be like if KERS and Pirelli tyres were not in - I think with DRS on it's own, races would not be as exciting and overtaking would be very processional, predictable and always in the same part of the track. DRS, combined with KERS and Pirellis, is part of the F1 2011 package which has made races even more fascinating than F1 2010 and the sport has generated a sense of unpredictability. It's just a shame that the only thing predictable right now is the winner.