The Trouble With Quotations: Pay Drivers and their Importance to Formula One’s Future

Other than for specifying a direct quote from someone other than yourself, what are quotations used for?

Think about that for a second.

Done?

When we use quotations, often times it is in an attempt to highlight or draw attention to a certain word or group of words in a sentence. If I said that I was friends with a racing driver, you may get excited in the hopes that you knew who he or she was. If I said I was friends with a “racing driver”, immediately a red flag would go up. Is he really a racing driver? Does he just pretend to be one? You would immediately question his status as a racing driver and thus, the meaning behind the words “racing driver” is lessened.

Now, it seems to be an old topic these days, but one which is central to the future of the sport. Pay drivers. Or should I say, “pay drivers”?

Go to any accredited Formula One news source and find an article in which pay drivers are mentioned. You will find that the words “pay” and “drivers” are almost always put in quotations. Why? It would seem strange for the importance of these words to be belittled by the use of quotations. Especially when one considers how vital they are to the future of the sport. For the rest of this article, I will not be restricting pay drivers to the bounds of quotations. Instead, I will let them be free (no pun intended) from constraint, as they have a part to play in this ever-changing world we call Formula One.

If you take a step back and look at the state of Formula One at the moment, you will see a sport that is, quite frankly and understandably, desperate for money. Many have grown weary of the so-called tyrant, Bernie Ecclestone, and his rather controversial and sometimes unpopular way of doing things for the sport. But really, Bernie has one of the hardest jobs in the sport. Arguably THE hardest. He has to promote a sport which sucks up money like a vacuum cleaner on steroids with an insatiable appetite, while also making sure that contracts with drivers, teams, tracks, sponsors, commercial rights holders (a company Bernie himself owns), and various other groups that make Formula One what it is today are maintained and honored in their entirety. Ally that with a global economic climate that is not conducive to big spending at the moment, and a natural environment which is in a seriously precarious state and you have a recipe for conflict. If the switch to V6 turbo engines seemed a bit rushed, there is your reason. Economically, Formula One is not ready for the engine and regulation changes in 2014, but the environment is not really ready to handle the type of fuel and energy waste that defines Formula One at present.

The drivers in Formula One are the face of the sport. They have, and form, an intimate connection between the fans who make the sport viable and the big wigs like Bernie and the FIA. The drivers have an obligation to promote themselves in a way that pleases their fans as well as those who run the sport. First, though, they have to make it into F1.

The story of Luiz Razia is a painful one which no one, especially him, wants to relive. If you can imagine being a young 23-year old on the cusp of making it big in the racing world, only to be let down by circumstances that were out of your reach, you can imagine the emotional pain Luiz went through on that fateful day in February. If you recall how Luiz got his chance in Formula One, however, you will notice that he took the place of a highly respected veteran who did not have the financial means to pay for his seat at Marussia in 2013.

Timo Glock was a very determined driver who made a lot of sacrifices for the sport he loved. Having been left out to dry in the wake of Toyota’s exit from the sport at the end of 2009, Timo sought refuge in the Banbury start-up team known in 2010 as Virgin Racing. Only in 2012 would title sponsor and Russian sportscar maker, Marussia, take over as the name of the team.

As 2013 loomed large, Marussia had to face the facts; they didn’t have enough money for the year to both operate as a functional Formula One team and to pay Timo’s salary. The unlucky German was aware of this situation and, in January, Marussia announce they would be signing GP2 graduate, Luiz Razia, to their team to partner known pay driver, Max Chilton. It didn’t take long, however, for people to realize that Luiz’s future with the team was just as insecure as Timo’s was, as the Brazilian driver was nowhere to be seen during the second pre-season test in Barcalona. The rumors were finally answered when Marussia announced that, due to a lack of funding from Luiz, they would have to drop him from their lineup.

Perhaps a lack of funding is the wrong way to word his predicament. Supposedly, there were millions to be had from the Brazilian’s sponsors, but there was a problem getting said millions from the sponsor to the team. The people funding Luiz’s Formula One dream ran out of time to provide the money to Marussia, despite being gifted a deadline extension, and the sad fact of the matter was that Luiz had to go. As mentioned earlier, this was through no fault of Luiz. He had no control over how fast his sponsorship got to Marussia, and that, perhaps, makes the circumstance more painful. Luiz was helpless in this situation and there was no help to be found.

This unfortunate event drew a lot attention to the topic of drivers who pay for their race seats. The debate is as such: Formula One needs to find a way to operate so that teams with less money don’t have to resort to running drivers who pay. However, with such a way not clearly or easily available, Formula One teams rely on paying drivers to fund their competitive efforts. Without their money, the teams have no hope in the first place of advancing up the grid. Once they have made good progress, however, the possibility of hiring drivers purely and absolutely on merit is made feasible. The facts are clear though: at present, low-funded teams have absolutely no way of operating successfully without the help of pay drivers.

This brings me back to quotations. If you thought I had gone on a rather long tangent, do not worry, for I have found my way back.

I ask you this question: Would you rather the likes of Marussia, Caterham, Williams, Sauber and Force India had slightly lower caliber drivers, but still existed, or would you rather that those teams folded and never saw the light of day again? For me, there is a very simple answer: The former. I for one, can accept the climate of the sport at the moment and as such, I know, and must also accept, that pay drivers are a part of life. There is nothing that is going to remedy this in the immediate future. I don’t want to sound one-sided at all, because I know that I would rather have drivers in Formula One that are there purely because of their astounding driving talent, and that I am not the only one who agrees my former point. But at the present moment, the economic climate does not allow for the extravagance that characterizes some of the top Formula One teams. This lack of finances is the precise reason that in-season testing is banned, refueling is a thing of the past, and European tracks are now outnumbered by Asian, South and North American tracks on the calendar. Formula is finding it hard to accept the fact that this is not the early 2000’s.

In almost any news article written about pay drivers, those two words will be both preceded and succeeded by quotation marks. Why? We should never attempt to alter or abate the meaning behind these words.

There is a common sentiment that pay drivers are detrimental to the future of the sport, that their mere presence is harmful to the worldwide perception of Formula One and that making them a part of life in Formula One is ruining fans’ appreciation of the sport. This is exactly the opposite of the truth, however.

There is no reason to lessen the meaning behind pay drivers, and it would be dangerous to do so. Pay drivers are a fundamentally integral part of the current climate in Formula One and if we forget how important they are, we risk ruining our love for the sport, because we won’t recognize that the very existence of Formula One depends on these drivers brining money for the teams. I don’t care how much you complain that the quality of racing is diminished by the use of pay drivers. There is no running from the truth: We need them.

Formula One’s history of racing the world’s fastest cars with the world’s fastest drivers against each other will never be lost. Formula One’s history of providing the world with the most exhilarating racing spectacle on earth is not in danger either. Formula One’s fundamental qualities are not about to be resigned to the history books. Yes, extenuating circumstances have created a tough environment for Formula One to work in, and yes, there are some things that each and every fan might want to change. The fact that some drivers have to pay for their seats in Formula One is a natural part of the Formula One at present. There is nothing we can do about it at the moment, and we may never be able to do anything about it. Because of this, their importance should never be degraded. If anything, their role in Formula One needs to be more publicly endorsed, because if fans never realize the essential role they play in the narrative of Formula One, then Formula One has some even bigger problems on its hands.

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The F1 Life Three Month Update

I’ve decided to start a feature for the blog. Crazy, right? The pace that Formula One moves at is often a bit overwhelming at times, what with driver changes, controversy and secrecy permeating every waking moment of the sport. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and look at the big picture for a change.

This feature will cycle every three months and will, as I said earlier, take a look at the sport with a much broader scope. What has happened over the past three months that could affect the future of the sport, its drivers and teams, and where is the sport looking to be in the future? These are the types of questions this feature will aim to answer, because as we all know, it is very easy to get lost in all the melee.

So, what did 2013 promise? It certainly had a lot to live up to following the titanic battle for the 2012 crown. Two of the sport’s greats duked it out in an almighty battle between man and machine. A fight between the underdog and the overwhelming favorite always promises surprises, and we got them in spades during 2012. Ironically, though, 2013 was nearly forgotten with the 2014 regulations overhaul looming ever-larger in the face of economic uncertainty. Formula One has a knack for sorting itself out in the end, though, and another fantastic battle began to brew come testing.

The preseason itself was all about change. It was nigh on impossible to look somewhere without seeing a brand new driver-team pairing. Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, Sergio Perez to Mclaren, Nico Hulkenberg to Sauber and Charles Pic to Caterham were the big moves of the season, while Valtteri Bottas, Esteban Gutierrez, Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde all got the nod for race seats. Inevitably, on the lips of every Formula One fan was the discussion of pay drivers. Why must money be a deciding factor when choosing a driver? Well, for one, Formula One can’t control the global economic climate. This is a fact some have found very difficult to accept, as die-hard F1 purists detested the invasion of rich youngsters who forced out experienced talent and other more qualified younger drivers in the ruthless battle for a Formula One race seat. Indeed, with the likes of Timo Glock and Kamui Kobayashi getting the boot at 2012’s close, Formula One found itself in need of some soul searching.

It wasn’t just change on the driver front, as Ferrari found itself in a strange position of competitiveness by the end of preseason testing, with Mclaren finding the going much more difficult than in 2012. The likes of Mercedes and Lotus were there or thereabouts, while Red Bull were all but invisible in the test (as usual). While fluctuation in competitive form is interesting and keeps the fans wanting more, an argument could be made that fans could be lost without a clear leader paving the way at the front of the grid. Everyone needs that one team with a target on their back, right? You may say, “Hey, what about Red Bull? They’ve dominated for the past three and a half years”. You would be partially correct in that, as the increasingly formidable drinks company has dented the egos of the heavy hitters like Mclaren and Ferrari over the past couple of years. But be aware that, apart from dominating the 2011 season, Red Bull hasn’t always been the team to beat, and with the financial stability of many of the teams under serious threat, nothing is guaranteed.

Controversy has reared its ugly head this season, as well. With drivers, technology and teams facing some form of scrutiny in the public eye, our appetite for scandal has been thoroughly whetted just two races into the season. This controversy, however, could have some long-term drawbacks attached to it. Teammate relations at Red Bull were officially severed in Malaysia, and teams like Williams and Caterham had to throw away promising upgrades due to their illegality. Regarding the Red Bull issues, I have already voiced my opinions, and while there is nothing I or anyone else can do about team orders in the sport, we can revel in the fact that the ramifications of the events in Malaysia could have a long-lasting effect on the rest of the season and the future of the sport. What Malaysia taught us is that racers are racers, and not even an FIA-allowed rule will stop them from doing what they do best. This very quality was criticized in Malaysia, and for good reason, but hopefully nothing like what was said in the sweltering heat of Malaysia will be uttered again. It left a very sore mark on the face of the sport, one which may take a long time to be healed.

In the end, however, the past three months have been dominated by compromise. Regulation changes loom large for 2014, and up and down the pit lane are worried faces. Balancing focus between 2013 development and 2014 overhaul will be the challenge of the year. Teams who have struggled in the initial races may want to back off this year and focus their efforts on making a competitive car for next season. Alternatively, they could benefit from focussing on 2013 in order to place themselves high in the constructors’ championship and thus the recipients of the monetary benefits.

For some, however, the regulation changes may prove too daunting. The demise of HRT was a very clear warning that the Formula One environment is not financially viable for most teams. What is more worrying is that HRT folded without the costs of major regulation changes in the way. After 2013, the efforts requires to build a completely new car with fundamentally different design philosophies could be the downfall of even more teams. Rumors that Force India, Caterham and Marussia could struggle to remain on the grid are not completely ridiculous, and the sport needs to do something about that. If there is not a feasible working financial plan for Formula One, who knows how long teams, or even the sport as a whole, will last?

Team Orders: Are they to blame?

It’s a sad day when a racing driver is criticized for making a daring move for the lead of a race. It’s a sad day when there are rules in the sport which permit a team to prevent a driver from overtaking another. It’s a miserable day when strict rules are broken and the trust between a driver and his faithful team is strained almost to the point of snapping.

Now we’ve all had time to really absorb the events of last Sunday, we can delve into why everything happened the way it did.

Its should be pointed out from the offset that I personally do not agree with how the teams went about the race, that is, how Mercedes and Red Bull went about the race. I don’t believe team orders should be allowed, as they prevent racing and skew results that drivers really deserve.

We did see an interesting display of team orders in Malaysia, though, as the majority of team orders are for the purpose of making a slower driver (or number two driver) move over for their faster teammate. Team orders of this nature are arguably the worst in terms of the nature of a race. The anticlimax of a leading driver purposely slowing down to let their teammate get by ruins any potential battle between teammates or a deserved win by the original leader.

With Mark Webber controlling the Malaysian Grand Prix for a majority of the running, Sebastian Vettel made his way up to his teammate towards the end of the race. Out of frustration, the German radioed to the pitwall to make Mark get out of the way. Just a few laps later, however, the dreaded “multi-21” was communicated to both Mark and Sebastian, signaling the end of any battles they were planning on having.

Much to the shock of Red Bull, though, Sebastian blatantly and defiantly disobeyed this rule by the team. He made his move on the Aussie late in the race down the pit straight. Mark did his best to hold him off, but he wasn’t prepared to race at that time (he had his engine turned down as part of “multi-21”).

In the aftermath of the race, it was nigh on impossible to justify Sebastain’s actions. Blatantly disobeying a direct order from your team is unacceptable and Sebastian was right to regret his actions after the race. But were Red Bulls in the right in the first place to impose their team orders? As mentioned earlier, team orders are usually imposed when the team wants to flip-flop the leading order. In Sunday’s case, the team wanted to rein in a charging Vettel in the hopes of keeping the tires safe and their inevitable lead in the championship guaranteed.

The argument built surrounding this controversy is that Vettel was in the wrong for disobeying team orders. His contractual obligations to the team mean that his personal aspirations are technically second to those of Red Bull. No driver, no matter how successful, is bigger than the team. With this in mind, though, it can be said that Red Bull had no real reason to impose team orders. Yes, they wanted to preserve tires which were on the verge of destruction and yes, they wanted to guarantee that both the drivers would come home safely. Turkey 2010 replayed in millions of minds as Vettel made his daring pass for the lead.

The clash in Turkey isn’t the only instance if the increasingly deal relationship between Mark and Sebastian. Silverstone in the same year with the front wing controversy comes to mind, along with the same Grand Prix the year afterwards, where Mark pushed the limits of obeying team orders while following his teammate. Mark even made life difficult for Sebastian in last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix when the German was fighting for the championship. The tension between the two was there the day Sebastian arrived on the scene in 2009, and in Sepang last Sunday, the bond finally snapped. Left in the aftermath is outright distrust.

The Pirelli tires are partly to blame for the team orders yesterday. Had Mark and Sebastian been able to rely in their tires to remain intact for the whole race and not have to hold back, Red Bull would not have have had to set the finishing order of the race prematurely. Indeed, at least two of the drivers on the podium were not happy at all with the tires during the race, saying that they have to race at eight tenths just to keep them alive for long enough in a stint. The tires are creating a false image of racing these days. Do not be mistaken on a race day. It will be hard to talk to a driver afterwards who has truly pushed as hard as they can for the whole race.

In the end, however, the blame falls on the team. It is their job to create an environment where driver treatment might not necessarily be equal, but where they can at least control their drivers. Red Bull have created an environment where Sebastian is held in high regard; and he makes alarmingly good use of that. There is disconcerting sense that Sebastian is the “chosen one” at Red Bull. A fair assumption, no doubt, but the young German has taken his liberties within the team to an extent so extreme, his relationship with his teammate will probably never be repaired. Will Mark retire after this season? Who knows? It certainly seemed the obvious thing to do at the end of this season even before the events on Sunday. Now, will he want to back out early?

Tensions are well and truly boiled over in the Red Bull camp, and the attacks against Vettel for taking a win away from Mark are justifiable. What the events on Sunday served to prove, though, is that despite his comfort within the team and his control over what they do a lot of the time, Sebastian Vettel is a ruthless and uncompromising racer. He was prepared (and did) to disregard team orders for the sake of taking the win and the lead in the drivers championship. Yes, it was wrong of him to disobey his team, but can you really blame him? It is hard to argue that Mark would have stayed behind Vettel in the same exact circumstance.

This situation has done no favors for a driver who was well and truly hated by many. Is it his success over the past three years that had created this hate for the German? It is probable, and an unfortunate part of human nature. It’s a sad day when we hate those who enjoy success. I will admit myself that in my anger over Sunday’s events, I was quick to say disparaging comments about Vettel. These weren’t completely baseless at the end of they day, but I did lose a lot of respect for him on Sunday. What Sebastain has taught us though, is that he is here to win at all cost and that is nice to hear. I will admit however, as we have seen, there are consequences.

Red Bull weren’t the only team mired in controversy last weekend. Mercedes, who enjoyed their best two car finish in the team’s history since returning to the sport, were also worried about the integrity if their tires and fuel, with particular concern placed over the latter. Early on in the race, Lewis Hamilton was in extreme fuel saving mode, as Mercedes’ plan to aggressively fight the Red Bulls did not pan out.

Rosberg was in much better shape throughout the race and, despite being behind Lewis for the whole race, was catching his teammate rapidly in the closing stages of the race. Like Red Bull, the Mercedes pit wall was quick to quell Nico’s desire to pass his teammate for third. It was a rather interesting and, at times, heated discussion. In the end, getting both cars home in their current positions was more important than charging ahead and risking their cars.

The Mercedes situation was more alarming to me than the Red Bull one, though. Unlike Mark and Sebastian, Lewis and Nico do not have a strained and heated history. They have remained friends ever since their days as karting teammates. With Nico’s car superior speed at the end of the race, I was very surprised at the vigor with which Brawn denied Nico’s request to pass. Both Lewis and Nico are smart enough to keep things clean and not ruin the team’s chance for a great result, and Nico’s speed meant there wasn’t a huge risk of the battle continuing for very long. For this reason, they way Brawn denied Nico’s demands was worrying.

Coming into 2013, the consensus among the drivers and big wigs at Mercedes was that both drivers would et equal treatment. This seemed to be thrown out of the window last Sunday when Nico was not allowed to pass. Red Bull are known for their 1-2 driver combination, but at a team where both drivers are supposedly equal, it is alarming that they were told not to race; even for the cars’ sake.

Nico, though, handled the situation beautifully, keeping pressure in Lewis to let the team know he was unhappy, but never threatening to disrupt the chain of events. If anyone knows about wanting to bring the at home in the points, it’s Nico. Watch out for Lewis, though, because despite all the stark raving mad Lewis fans there are out there, he is not the little angel they like to portray him as. His disappointing actions in Belgium last year only serve to justify this.

The ramifications of the events over last weekend will certainly stay the whole season. Tensions are mounting and some have even snapped altogether. What we know for sure, though, is that neither team is done with determining the order of a race this season.

Ferrari seem like saints, these days.

Controversy Rules the Day in Sepang

There have been races won amidst controversy and while the ramifications are always large and varying, one thing always remains the same: controversy is not going anywhere.

Aside from being a genuinely exciting race with weather, tire and fuel uncertainty, the race was mired in controversy. The final finishing order was not entirely surprising, what with the Red Bull Mercedes and the lone Ferrari drivers coming out on top. They way these positions were decided, however, will be the topic of discussion until we head to China in three weeks’ time.

The wet conditions at the start of the race made possible the first controversy of the day. Fighting Sebastian Vettel for the lead into the first corner, Fernando Alonso broke his front wing on the back of the German’s car.  Fernando did a good job to keet the car on track for the rest of the lap, but strangely, he did not go to the pits at the end of the first lap, instead deciding to continue with a front wing which was clearly about to come off.  And so it did. On the run down the main straight on the second lap, the front wing on Fernando’s car came off, sending him into the gravel. This was a very strange and rare mistake by the Spaniard and one which does not shed him in good light. Maybe the pressure from Felipe Massa is starting to get to him. More surprising was the fact that the Ferrari pit crew were waiting in the pit lane for Fernando at the end of the first lap.  One wonders how many mistakes Ferrari will tolerate this season now that their car is genuinely quick.

As the rain subsided and the rack dried out, gambles on the slick tires were soon to be made. Reigning champion, Sebastian Vettel was the first to take the plunge on the slick tires and proved they were the right tire to be on, despite a few mid-corner wobbles.  With everyone now on slick tires, it was Mark Webber who lead the field. After a great start, one in which he did not lose any places, from 5th on the grid, Mark made steady progress to the front of the field. It was clear by now that the dry weather pace deficit the Red Bull team experienced in Australia was gone.

Felipe Massa got caught out in the opening few laps, falling down the order to the lower end of the points table, while Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button shone in the wet conditions to move up to 6th and 5th place, respectively. With the track drying, though, their pace deficit would begin to show.

Raikkonen an Grosjean made similarly poor starts like Massa, with both of the Lotus drivers out of the points in the opening laps of the race. Their pace in the wet was not where they wanted it to be.

Once the order had settled down in the dry weather, the race was on to the finish.  The Red Bulls and Mercedes were fairly evenly matched on pace with Jenson Button doing a valiant job to keep the top four in his sight. It was looking, however, to be a race won by the Red Bulls, with both Mark and sebastian swapping places in the lead throughout the middle part of the race. As their battle continued, Sebastian became increasingly annoyed by the pace of Marks car, prompting the German to contact the team to tell his teammate to move out of the way. They denied this request, thus setting the scene for the controversy about which this article is titled.

The battle for the lesser points in the race was a fraught one, with nearly every driver in the field enjoying stints in the top-10 at some point or another. The Force Indias endured terrible afternoons, however, as Sutil’s second pitstop went awry. There was a problem fitting the new tire to the rim of the car. The helpless mechanics repeatedly twisted the wheel nut on the wheel, but to no avail.  A problem associated with the actual fitting of the wheel onto the rim prompted the team to call in Paul di Resta into the pits as well, where they ended up retiring his car as well. It was a disappointing day for the Force India team, at a track where they historically do so well.

With the midfield enduring problems of their own, the leaders enjoyed their own isolated battles for supremacy.  With Mark Webber still leading, and thus still annoying Vettel, tensions started to rise. Sebastian hounded Mark lap after tire-chewing lap until he finally got close enough to make it stick. The German made a rather alarming move to the inside of the track on the main straight, almost touching the pit wall.  Mark stayed alongside of him, though, but in the end came out of the battle in second place. Scary reproductions of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix must have been playing in the minds of all the Red Bull team members.  Amidst all this heart pounding racing, the radio messages between Christian Horner and Sebastian Vettel grew heated.  “Code 21, Code 21” said the team principal.  This combination of letters and numbers has a significant meaning in the Red Bull camp: Hold your position. With this message very clearly laid out, Sebastian promptly ignored it by the lead of the race and never looking back.

A similar situation at Mercedes was also occurring. Nico Rosberg, driving superbly, was clearly faster than his new teammate. What seemed like a stalemate battle later turned out to be team orders locking the drivers’ positions. In the best finishing order the Mercedes team has ever found itself in, Ross Brawn was understandably anxious about the possibility of his drivers fighting for position. Ross Brawn had a battle of words with his German driver telling him that this positions was important and that they need not ruin the result with an unnecessary battle for position. Indeed, by this time in the race, the two Mercedes drivers were  well clear of 5th placed Romain Grosjean, thus justifying these team orders. Nico reluctantly obeyed his boss and finished the race just half a second shy of a podium finish.

The emotions following the end of the race were awkward to say the least. Mark was understandably furious with Sebastian, as a guaranteed race win was ruined by his stubbornness.  It was a very poor showing from Sebastian who admitted he regretted making the move the second it was done.  At Mercedes, the dealings with the tension were much more tame. Rosberg conceded that he understood the logic in Brawn’s decision and that he vows to work harder to get on the podium. Even Lewis Hamilton admitted that Nico deserved to be on the podium in his place.

The ramifications of this race may prove far more significant than we anticipate in its immediate aftermath. The fact remains, though, that Sebastian won’t forget this race for the rest of his career.

Race Results:

The Malaysian Grand Prix
Sepang, Malaysia;
56 laps; 310.408km;
Weather: .

Classified:

Pos  Driver               Team                    Time/Gap
 1.  Sebastian Vettel     Red Bull-Renault    1h38m56.681s
 2.  Mark Webber          Red Bull-Renault        + 4.298s
 3.  Lewis Hamilton       Mercedes               + 12.181s
 4.  Nico Rosberg         Mercedes               + 12.640s
 5.  Felipe Massa         Ferrari                + 25.648s
 6.  Romain Grosjean      Lotus-Renault          + 35.564s
 7.  Kimi Raikkonen       Lotus-Renault          + 48.479s
 8.  Nico Hulkenberg      Sauber-Ferrari         + 53.044s
 9.  Sergio Perez         McLaren-Mercedes     + 1m12.357s
10.  Jean-Eric Vergne     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   + 1m27.124s
11.  Valtteri Bottas      Williams-Renault     + 1m28.610s
12.  Esteban Gutierrez    Sauber-Ferrari           + 1 lap
13.  Jules Bianchi        Marussia-Cosworth        + 1 lap
14.  Charles Pic          Caterham-Renault         + 1 lap
15.  Giedo van der Garde  Caterham-Renault         + 1 lap
16.  Max Chilton          Marussia-Cosworth       + 2 laps
17.  Jenson Button        McLaren-Mercedes        + 3 laps
18.  Daniel Ricciardo     Toro Rosso-Ferrari      + 5 laps
Fastest lap: Perez, 1m39.199s

Not classified/retirements:

Driver            Team                  On lap
Pastor Maldonado  Williams-Renault      45
Adrian Sutil      Force India-Mercedes  27
Paul di Resta     Force India-Mercedes  22
Fernando Alonso   Ferrari               1

 

A Race of Two Faces

There are two contrasting directions the Malaysian Grand Prix could potentially take tomorrow. Whether the race is dry or wet will alter strategy and tire usage drastically, thus playing to the strengths of different cars.

As we saw in qualifying today, the Red Bull was not the fastest car in the dry. Even Sebastian Vettel admitted that had qualifying stayed dry, he would not have been on pole position. This fact was very revealing, as last week in Melbourne, no one could touch the Red Bulls in the dry. However, in the race, their pace was nothing like what we were expecting it to be, as the long run pace of the triple World Champion team was not enough to propel either of their drivers to victory. Today, we saw a reverse in Red Bull’s fortunes. With one lap pace in the dry not where they wanted it to be, when the rain came, there was nothing that could touch Sebastian Vettel. The German secured his 38th career pole position in commanding fashion with an increasingly resurgent Felipe Massa slotting in alongside of him on the front row. With Red Bull’s dominant wet weather pace, a wet race would be a welcome surprise. However, if the race is dry, could Red Bull have found their long run pace in the dry, or will they fall into the clutches of the Lotus and Ferraris? It is not something Sebastian will want to find out the hard way.

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Kimi Raikkonen had a rather disappointing qualifying. Considering his dominant long run pace yesterday in practice, and his ability over one lap, many were tipping the Finn to take his first pole position for Lotus. Circumstances out of Kimi’s reach prevented him from emulating his performance in the dry of Q1 and Q2. Kimi was one of the fastest, but with rain already coming on in the latter half of Q2 and continuing even stronger in Q3, the pace of the Lotus was not enough to challenge The Red Bulls, Ferraris and Mercedes. He lined up 7th for the second race in a row, but, luckily for him, the last time he started 7th, the race turned out rather well. A later development after qualifying revealed that the Finn was handed a 3-place grid penalty for holding up Nico Rosberg in qualifying. This reverts the championship leader to the 5th row of the grid and dents his hopes of winning again. He will have to rely on his superior tire wear to make progress tomorrow. Of the top teams, Lotus was the only team to not have both drivers in the top ten, with Romain Grosjean missing out in Q2 as the rain hit at just the wrong time. He has an extra set of dry tires for the race, but the jury is still out on whether they will be used at all during the race tomorrow. If the race is dry, he should be well-placed for a string result. Both Lotus cars look like the team to beat in a dry race.

The Mclarens have made some progress this weekend, and with both cars making it to Q3, there is cause for minor celebration. Jenson Button has been very positive about the Mclaren’s pace in the rain, as he was the fastest car on track when the rain came at the end of the second practice session. In qualifying, though, this pace deserted the Mclarens leaving both drivers at the bottom end of the top-10. Hopefully for them, their pace in the wet will return and they can make progress in the predicted wet race. If the race is dry, they look set for a battle between themselves and the Force Indias like last week.

Among the midfield, the Force Indias have been consistently the fastest. Adrian Sutil ended the final practice session third fastest, raising the team’s expectations for qualifying. He backed up this pace by topping Q1 ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and setting the 6th fastest time in Q2. When the rain came, however, his pace was not there. He lines up 8th on the grid after Kimi Raikkonen’s penalty. He did fare better than his teammate, though. Paul di Resta was caught out by the sudden rain in Q2 before he had set a time in the dry conditions. He lines up 15th.

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The Saubers, Toro Rossos and Williams had more quiet qualifying performances. They seem to be a significant way off the pace of the Force Indias and will be working flat-out to figure out why. With Sauber ahead of Toro Rosso, who in turn are ahead of Williams, there is at least a hierarchy against which we can compare each midfield team.

In the battle of the back markers, it was Jules Bianchi who dominated once again. Not only did he out-qualify the nearest Caterham by nine tenths and his teammate by 1.2 seconds, but he was less than three tenths off the pace of Valtteri Bottas in the Williams. Jules Bianchi may have a genuine shot of beating one of the slower midfielders tomorrow if the race is dry. If the race is wet, he could even hope for more.

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The 2013 season promises to keep fans wondering. Will Red Bull find their dominance again or has a new leader emerged in Lotus? Will Mclaren reclaim their mojo, or are they resigned to a year stuck in the top end of the midfield? Will Mercedes’ pace last, or will they fall behind as the season progresses? These questions may be answered tomorrow or at the next race, but as 2012 proved, we may not know until the end of the season.

All images courtesy of Autosport

It’s still all about the tires

With the opening Friday practice sessions completed, a relatively clear picture of the competitive running order for this weekend has started to emerge

What we have learned so far is that with Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus have arguably the fastest car of the weekend. Over long and short runs, Kimi has been at the very top of the field, with only the Red Bull drivers able to truly compete with the Finn’s fast and consistent lap times.

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Further back, it seems there is a tight battle ensuing between the Ferraris and Mercedes, with the potential for the Force Indias to sneak into that group on occasion. The small midfield outfit has once again proven to be the fastest midfield competitor to the top four teams at the moment.

After their disastrous showing in Auistralia, Mclaren have gotten off to a better start in Malaysia. The car is more consistent and the lap times seem to be much closer to the leading teams than they were in Australia. The track conditions have proven beneficial to the Mclaren, with the smooth surface assuaging some of the more stark issues on the MP4-28.

After these five teams, there is a larger cutoff to the rest of the midfield, with Sauber looking a step ahead of Toro Rosso and Williams. After that, the battle between the back markers is set to be close once again. The star performer of this group, Jules Bianchi, was very impressive in FP2, as he put in a time less than 3 seconds off the fastest time of the session and finished ahead of the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.

The grid will be set tomorrow in qualifying, and a compromise must be made once again between ultimate grid position and having fresh tires. We could see some heavy hitters either fail to make Q3 or sit out the final qualifying session once they make it there. This will allow them to start on whichever tire they choose, giving them a tactical advantage over their rivals.

The race results and overall competitive order is still largely unknown and there are a barrage of variables that seem to make everyone reserve judgment on the subject. What we know for sure, is that tires will one again dominate the result of this race, as it did in Australia. Don’t expect the Lotus to run off with this race agin, though. There is nothing to suggest yet that another team couldn’t close the gap.

With rain expected during the race, the unknowns about this race keep compounding on each other. All the data gathered today and tomorrow morning could be all for naught if the rain kicks in and remains for the whole Grand Prix on Sunday.

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Get ready, everybody. This is going to be a good one!

Free Practice Session 2 results

Pos Driver Team Time Gap Laps
1. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m36.569 28
2. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m36.588s + 0.019s 27
3. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m36.661s + 0.092s 33
4. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m36.985s + 0.416s 23
5. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m37.026s + 0.457s 29
6. Romain Grosjean Lotus Renault 1m37.206s + 0.637s 26
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m37.448s + 0.879s 32
8. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.571s + 1.002s 30
9. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m37.574s + 1.005s 32
10. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1m37.788s + 1.219s 10
11. Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes 1m37.838s + 1.269s 21
12. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m37.865s + 1.296s 29
13. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.068s + 1.499s 31
14. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.645s + 2.076s 23
15. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m38.738s + 2.169s 31
16. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m38.801s + 2.232s 27
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m38.904s + 2.335s 31
18. Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth 1m39.508s + 2.939s 30
19. Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1m39.660s + 3.091s 28
20. Charles Pic Caterham-Renault 1m40.757s + 4.188s 29
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault 1m40.768s + 4.199s 32
22. Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth 1m41.438s + 4.869s 23

Playing Favorites

It is very sad, really. If you were Felipe Massa during the Australian Grand Prix and you had just made your second pit stop, you would be perfectly justified in being rather furious.

Felipe’s late-season form last year was a welcome relief to the Brazilian’s fans. A consistent string of 10 points-scoring finishes in the last 10 races proved that, for the moment, Felipe was back on his game.

Back to Australia. The second stops are over, you’re on fresh tires, and you see your teammate right in front of you. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to chase him down, right? Well, it is the perfect time. But this notion should never have had to cross Felipe’s mind in the first place. Rewind three laps and you would notice that the resurgent Brazilian was ahead of his illustrious teammate. While his position in second place at the time was far from secure, there were no signs that he was cracking under the pressure of holding off his two time World Champion teammate. He was beautifully balancing his aggression with tire conservation, a skill many have yet to master.

Formula One World Championship

In Formula One, there is a sort of unspoken rule that whichever teammate is ahead at any given moment gets pitstop priority. Ferrari easily obliged to this rule at the first round of pitstops, servicing Felipe a lap before Fernando. There was absolutely no problem there. Felipe was still ahead on track after his teammate exited the pits- they were free to race once more.

Come the second round of stops, the thinking within the Ferrari team changed. With the order still the same- Felipe leading Fernando- the latter was called in for a tire change, leaving Felipe out on the track bewildered by the fact that he was not given priority again. Ferrari broke the unspoken rule. How could they, you might ask? Well it’s simple really.

Ferrari’s history does not reveal that it is one to play the team game. It plays the team game in the sense that it wants to win the Constructor’s Championship at nearly all costs, but it is not exactly famous for leveling the playing field for both of its drivers. Any seasoned Formula One fan will tell you this without giving it a second thought. However, the situation in Australia was different.

This was the first race. The hierarchy of teams was not even remotely established at the time so there was no incentive to give priority to a driver that was not performing as well as his teammate. The staunchest Fernando Alonso fan will even tell you that at the second round of pitstops, Felipe Massa was cheated. He was cheated out of a better race, out of a potential podium, and- perhaps most importantly- out of a chance to have a fair, on-track fight with his teammate.

Here is the math of the situation. Felipe Massa made his first stop precisely one lap before Fernando Alonso. This meant that by the time the second stops came around, his tires were one lap older. One would think that to make things fair, Felipe would pit again one lap before Fernando to make the number of laps raced on both sets of tires equal. That wasn’t how Ferrari planned it.

Instead, Fernando entered the pits before Felipe at the second round of stops, thus ensuring Felipe would run two more laps than Fernando on the same type of tire. This meant, Felipe would be going slower for those two laps and thus, he would emerge from the pits behind Fernando. This bit of trickery was unquestionably unfair. But try telling that to Ferrari, and they won’t hear a word of it. The answer will be some sort of flimsy, political muttering placing the responsibility on Felipe and his engineer.

With Felipe floundering about on tires two laps older than they should have been, there was no chance for Felipe to come out on top after his pitstop. The laws of physics wouldn’t really have allowed for it.

Rewind to the 2010 German Grand Prix. This was a bitterly sad day for the sport, as Ferrari clearly established their intentions for the future. I need not remind you of the events that day, as they will be forever in the history books for all the wrong reasons. One may justify Ferrari’s actions by saying that Fernando needed the extra points to aid a championship bid that Felipe was clearly not it. This reasoning may be true, but it certainly does not justify Ferrari’s actions that day.

Fast forward again to the 2012 Austin Grand Prix. It is the morning of race day and you, Felipe Massa, get the news from the team that they will be breaking the seal on your Ferrari’s gearbox in order to incur a penalty. They tell you you’ll be on the clean side of the grid and that you’ll be helping out Fernando tremendously because not only will he move up a place on the grid, but he’ll be on the clean side as well. These aren’t the things you really want to hear, but as the second driver for Ferrari, you are practically contractually obliged to agree with these terms.

When the news of this Ferrari-termed “gearbox problem” broke out to the general public, uproars of a nature so furious arose, one almost thought an angry mob would flood the paddock in search for whoever made this decision.

These two examples barely break the surface of Ferrari’s politicized nature. Nothing is going to change this, no matter how much we may want it to.

The situation in Melbourne this past weekend was different, though. The first race of the season is always a tricky one, as the competitive order is yet to be fully established. This makes Ferrari’s decision to screw over Felipe in the pits all the more surprising. At this point in the season, there is no reason to play favorites. Ferrari don’t know for sure that Fernando will be as fantastic a performer as he was last year and that Felipe won’t be the better of the two drivers this year. There is nothing preventing Felipe from being Ferrari’s championship challenger (other than his team, of course). Because of this, there was no reason for Ferrari to put their focus of Fernando, and Felipe surely will not forget this throughout the season. Unfortunately, there isn’t much he can do, really.

2013 could prove the year that Felipe Massa officially finds his pre-accident form. Ironically, though, his team may just prevent this from happening.