Kimi out for the Count

It’s always hard to see a driver you admire end a race empty-handed. When Kimi attempted to pull off what would have been a spectacular overtake on Massa but ran wide as his brakes finally gave out, my heart sank. Not just because it meant the end of his race and, in turn, his historical run of points finishes, but because it marked, in a way, the end of his title hopes.

Kimi was always a long shot for the championship this season. It was always going to be between Vettel, Alonso and now that the season has progressed, Hamilton. That win in Australia was the perfect way to start a hopeful campaign; but reality has come a’knocking today, as it has on many occasions this season. I have, and perhaps everyone has, realized that the Lotus, even with the Iceman at the wheel, just isn’t capable of a sustained championship challenge.

In China, that rare front row start should have been an easy win considering the tire problems Mercedes were still experiencing. In Malaysia, the car’s lack of wet weather pace lost the team more points that should have been lost. Canada was just a disappointment, and Germany, well that win was lost to, yet again, a lackluster qualifying performance.

More than all this, though, the loss of Kimi realistically fighting for the championship means that whatever battle there is for it, be it between Vettel and Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton, all three or even just Alonso and Hamilton, will be just that much less interesting.

We’ve lost a guy to really get behind. Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton, while all posing their own formidable fan bases, are very polarizing characters. They bring out a side in fans that can get ugly. The constant booing of Vettel on the podium, which is completely disrespectful, immature and reprehensible behavior, the masked, but admittedly rare, racism that surrounds Hamilton, and the subtle .

Kimi, on the other hand, is someone we all love. His blatant dislike of the media and anything political has given us a glimpse of what we as fans all want to see in the sport. He is the voice of reason among the paddock, and an outspoken one at that.

But now, he’s gone. Mathematically, this championship is very much within reach. Realistically, and based on obvious trends throughout the season, this championship fight was over when he failed to win in Germany. A triumph there could, and should, have salvaged the dying embers of his title tilt, but another loss in Hungary and the rain of Belgium have comprehensively snuffed that once roaring fire.

 

Tell me what you think! Is Kimi really out of the picture for the championship?

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Moving On

For those who may not know, I have recently begun my new job as Formula One writer for Rant Sports. I am the only full-time F1 writer so I will be very busy for the next year.

As a result, this blog may not be updated quite as often as usual. I will do my best to keep updating the standings pages and, if I have time, continue the “Aftermath” pieces I really enjoy writing.

Please visit rantsports.com to get the latest news and updates on the world of F1. I, and hopefully others, will be doing my best to keep the public informed on all things Formula One. If you decide to make Rant Sports your destination for Formula One news, then I commend you.

To find the Formula One section of Rant Sports, go to rantsports.com and find the “More” tab on the main menu. In that tab, you will see a sub-tab marked “NASCAR”. Click on that link (I know, NASCAR is scary. But trust me) and you should be able to see the Formula One news towards the bottom of the page.

I understand that this is not among some of the more simple ways to get Formula One news, but I assure you that the news you get will be reliable, interesting and well written.

Thank you for all of the support over the past months of this blog’s life and I hope you continue to visit it over the years. My journey in Formula One is picking up steam and I cannot wait for the future. It won’t be easy, but that means it’s worth it.

Note: I should have a very interesting Q&A coming up with someone you may not know all that much about, but has recently gotten a hefty promotion…

Now or Never for Felipe…Again

Formula One is all about relative performance. One may regard Felipe Massa’s steady, and surprisingly rapid, decline in performance as a disaster, and you would be forgiven for doing so. But the real story of Felipe’s Formula One narrative lies in relativity. Compared to his illustrious teammate, Felipe has actually made a marginal gain in points since last season at the halfway mark compared to Alonso. That is where Felipe needs to build from.

In 2010, the partnership between Felipe and Fernando was significantly more two-sided than it is today. When the circus took its summer break that season, Fernando had 141 points and was in a very tight 5-way fight for the title, while his teammate was resting on 97 points, and already assuming the supporting role for the rest of the season.

From this point on, everything was downhill for Felipe. In 2011, at the same point in the championship, Felipe had 70 points while Fernando had made a slight gain at 145. The next year the story was even worse for the Brazilian, as a paltry 25 points at the summer break was stacked up unceremoniously to his championship-leading teammate’s 164. This was a low point (in more ways than one) for Felipe, yet it marked the beginning of an unprecedented turnaround for the Brazilian that season where, besides Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, Felipe was the highest scorer in the field. Felipe had not enjoyed stats like that for years.

The upturn in form following the 2012 summer break convinced Ferrari that Felipe was now a reliable driver; one who could help the team secure a constructors’ championship in the near future.

This all seemed reasonably feasible in 2013, as the combination of a reinvigorated Felipe Massa, and ever-determined Fernando Alonso and a much more competitive car indicated a positive season was about to begin. Indeed, this renewed optimism was underscored by two early wins from Fernando and a podium in Spain from Felipe (along with other impressive drives). However, around the British Grand Prix this year, things turned sour for Ferrari and, incidentally, for Felipe.

As we approach the resumption of the Formula One season in Belgium, I ask you to glance at the midseason stats of the Ferrari drivers. Felipe rests on 61 points while Fernando has dropped to 133 from last year’s 164. The tables have turned this season as we see an improvement from Felipe and a dip in performance from the once unflappable Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has even admitted, much to the annoyance of Ferrari, that an improvement must be made soon in order for his championship challenge to remain possible.

But all of this is relative, right? Ferrari has improved from last year, no question, but have others gotten worse? We can count Mercedes out of that group, and perhaps Red Bull and Lotus. All three have either improved massively, or stayed the same. Relatively, of course. Mclaren, Sauber and Williams could be the catalyst for Ferrari’s perceived improvements. Mclaren was a clear frontrunner last season, and the surprising but inconsistent pace of the Sauber and Williams often took a lot of points away from the underperforming Ferraris.

Like I said, it’s all relative. The peaks and troughs throughout a Formula One season are all interdependent. Each nuance in the championship standing is not always because of one team’s surge in performance. Formula One is a game of give and take, and often one team’s gain is another’s loss.

Regardless, Felipe once again finds himself in the same position he has found himself at the halfway point of the past three years. He faces being dropped from Ferrari’s lineup next season, a season in which the competition to take that seat is hotter than it has ever been. Will Felipe find the performance to delay his inevitable retirement, or has he well and truly hit his limit? We’ll have to see what the rest of the field has to do with it. We know how important they can be…

Why Kimi’s Legacy Begins With Lotus

Earlier this year, I wrote all about why I believed Kimi did not belong at Red Bull. At the time of writing that piece, the rumors of a potential Kimi/Vettel pairing were still in their infancy, but I believed, and still believe, wholeheartedly that Kimi does not belong there. The culture and atmosphere at the team, regardless of what Red Bull may tell people, is just not right for the Finn.

Now I want to explain to you, mere weeks before a decision is to be made on the matter of Webber’s replacement, why Kimi needs to stay at Lotus.

It is a matter of legacy, for both Kimi Raikkonen and the Lotus team itself. Both have had their moments in the sunshine, which were all well-deserved, but both have endured their days of trial and tribulation. 2014 could be the year when both Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus cement their places in the sport’s history books.

Raikkonen’s monumental comeback in 2012 will be well documented for years to come, but Lotus’s own revival at the same time should not be discounted. Regardless of who was driving the car that year, it was a great car. Remember, it wasn’t Kimi who put the car in 3rd place on the grid for the 2012 season opener…

After a rather unceremonious parting with Ferrari at the end of 2009, Kimi found himself itching to get back in the game. The options were plentiful, but the Finn’s choice to come back with Lotus. I think he saw a very good opportunity waiting for him.

Kimi’s laid-back attitude can sometimes give onlookers the wrong impression. He cares about the sport immensely. Why else would he have come back with Lotus? The Enstone team offered him the best opportunity to just race. He could forget about the politics that plagued, and curtailed, his tenure at Ferrari and just get back to doing what he loved. Because of this opportunity, Kimi proved to the world that he cares about his legacy.

Had he hung up his helmet for good at the end of 2009, many would have remembered him as the guy who impressed throughout his career, but only won the championship at the expense of others’ losses (i.e. Alonso and Hamilton). I’m not saying that is true at all, but time is a tricky mistress, and it tends to fabricate our impressions of the past.

The unvarnished truth of the matter is, though, that Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t done. He wanted, no matter how much it may seem like he doesn’t care, to prove that he is one of the greats. Lotus gave him the opportunity to prove just that.

If, at the end of the season, Kimi Raikkonen is a double world champion, he will have accomplished what he set out to do. He will have proven that he has what it takes to bring a team out of the midfield doldrums into the spotlight of world championship status. That is what every driver wants in this sport. Think Michael Schumacher without all the controversy.

If Kimi is not champion after the Brazilian Grand Prix, then he has another chance to prove he can be. For the sake of his legacy, Kimi needs to approach every loss as another opportunity to try again.

The same goes for Lotus itself. A constructors’ title is a long shot this season, but next year offers the team another chance to prove they can be a powerful and lasting entity in Formula One.

In its various guises, Lotus has enjoyed its fair share of successes, and endured its fair share of losses. Just as Lotus struggled in 2011, it succeeded in 2012 and 2013. Lotus wants and needs to prove to the watching world that it is a team that is here to stay. Financially, that means perhaps it has to be more creative. Technically, that means it needs to think outside of the box. Mentally, that means it needs to just be tougher. If Lotus wants to be a team that all the drivers want to drive for, then they need to prove they can be. Mclaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and even Mercedes are the four teams that, from the outside, look like stable environments that can offer lasting success. Lotus needs to be the fifth team in that group.

If Kimi can cement his legacy at Lotus by winning a championship, then the way is paved for Lotus to cement their own in the very near future.

The Silly Season Domino Effect

You did it as a kid, right? You would spend hours upon hours standing up those little rectangular pieces of wood just hoping and praying that the tiniest breath of wind or even the squeak of a mouse wouldn’t somehow befall your Herculean effort. If all went well in the end, you would have a wonderfully elaborate and strangely beautiful line of rectangles that, on your command, would fall in just the right fashion. Your personal satisfaction as the master of all things dominoes enough to make the hours of work all worthwhile.

Formula One’s silly season is a lot like the scenario described above. Team managers, sponsors, principals, agents and the drivers themselves all work together to carefully place their dominoes (the drivers) in a position as advantageous as possible for themselves. If any surprise comes up, the whole scheme is ruined, sending any preconceived notion of a plan into chaos. If all goes to plan, however, the chain reaction from one driver move is controlled chaos with drivers moving every which way in a precise manner. Everyone has a place, even if that means losing your place.

We are on the brink of tipping that first domino. Within a month we will, and should, know who is replacing Mark Webber at Red Bull. If it is Kimi, then there is a vacant seat at Lotus. Names like Hulkenberg, di Resta, Ricciardo and Valsecchi have all been thrown into the pot of possible replacements for the Finn. Then even more scenarios raise their complicated heads. Who would replace Hulkenberg? A certain Russian is already lined up, but doubts over his readiness for the step up to the big leagues remain. Then there is Petrov who for the last year has been working his way back into the F1 scene. With the help of Mercedes he is getting cozy with some big names, but is it for F1, or is the DTM where he will make racing return?

What if di Resta took the seat? An empty place at Force India seems the ideal place for Jules Bianchi, right? He was their test driver last season, he got a year of experience at Marussia this season so surely Force India is the place to go. But Ferrari beckons. Felipe Massa’s poor form this season suggests the Brazilian’s time is limited at the Scuderia. Then again, it has been limited since 2010, yet he remains at the team four years later. We won’t know for sure whether Ferrari feels Jules is ready for Ferrari. Remember, they turned down a certain Mexican last season for his lack of experience. Experience, I might point out, that is double what Jules has right now. If Jules were to go to either Ferrari or Force India, then an empty seat at Marussia awaits the highest bidder. I won’t knock them for having two pay drivers next season. It will be a hard year for them, and they need all the help they can get. One hopes they can find the right balance between talent and money.

If Valsecchi gets the call from test to race driver, then the ramifications are not nearly as fundamental. The Italian doesn’t lead a whole lot of dominos, if you know what I mean.

If Ricciardo gets the seat, then the line of succession is plainly laid out thanks to Red Bull. Antonio Felix da Costa is primed and ready for an F1 debut in Toro Rosso and should, if junior reputations are to be believed, give Jean-Eric Vergne a serious run for his money. This scene will likely play out in the same manner if Ricciardo is to get the Red Bull seat. A fairly painless transition is on the books if Red Bull plan on promoting from within.

This is the hot topic of the year. Driver changes are always important every year, but the drastic changes taking place on the technical front pose a lot of logistical and monetary challenges that can at least be assuaged by a good choice in drivers.

Now for the really weird stuff. Let us toy with the notion that Fernando could possibly replace Mark Webber at Red Bull. Let us allow our minds to wander aimlessly in the realm of impossibility. Go on, its fun when you get used to it!

Besides this scenario being outside even the most leftwing realms of impossibility, a potential Fernando/Sebastian pairing does offer up a lot of opportunities for the rest of the field.

If Felipe was left to lead the team, I would see either Hulkenberg, Bianchi or di Resta as possible partners, with Hulkenberg the most tantalizing option. If one of those three went to Ferrari, their domino effects I laid out above would play out with, hopefully, as little drama as possible. But, if Ferrari were to do the unthinkable and completely revamp their driver lineup with two new drivers, then the dominos would not only fall, they would plummet, crash and burn into a fiery heap of excitement. I’m getting worked up just thinking about it.

Hulkenberg would have to be the first choice to lead the team. I find it difficult to imagine Ferrari would be able to pull a big name driver on such short notice. Perhaps Vettel would get worried at his pairing with Fernando and they would do the old switch-a-roo on us all. Seeing Sebastian in red just doesn’t sit with me very well for some reason.

With Hulkenberg holding down the fort, Jules Bianchi would be a risky, but wise, choice as the second driver. For his lack of experience Jules makes up for it in raw talent. Talent, I think, Sergio Perez might not quite have. Ferrari knew this, I think, and allowed the Mexican to go to Mclaren for that reason. A Hulkenberg/Bianchi pairing at Ferrari would be the most exciting lineup in years. They are both very young and would be able to grow each year while having a shot at the championship at the same time. You couldn’t ask for more.

These three lines of dominoes all promise phenomenally thrilling season in 2014. For the rest of the field, they can only hope they’re standing somewhere in those lines. It would be hard to make an impression otherwise.

Kimi, Mclaren and Secret Testing in: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Hindsight is a cruel mistress. No doubt every single team will be struggling not to employ it as they reflect on the first half of their seasons. It does, however, allow us to review the events that have already unfolded this season with a bit more context, though it doesn’t change the scores. As the title of this post suggests, it certainly has been a case of good, bad and ugly for many of the teams and drivers in the field. Those underperforming have an uphill task in climbing back to the top, and those who over performed can’t rest on their laurels. They must push just as hard as the rest of the field. For the ugly? Well, there isn’t much to say about that. Ugly is ugly, and we’ve had our fair share of that so far.

The Good:

Red Bull:

The class of the field on average has taken three wins this season (all from Sebastian Vettel) along with three poles (courtesy of the German, as well). These stats don’t stack up as well as those of the Mercedes AMG team, yet it is the team in blue and yellow that sits calmly perched at the top of both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.

The key this season has been consistency. Where Mercedes would often plummet down the order like a rock from pole position, Red Bull would keep and often extend its advantage at the front of the field in a race. Mercedes’ tire woes have a lot to do with this, of course, but Red Bull has still been more consistent regardless. That is why they are the team to beat at the moment. And they won’t let anyone forget it.

Lotus:

The surprise performer of last season has kept up the gig. A win in the opening round set the tone for the rest of the opening half of the season, As both Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean took seven further podiums. This has cemented their current 4th position in the constructors’ championship, but they have the performance to get up to second, without a doubt.

The only concerns that have been made apparent are the silly season rumors in which Kimi finds himself embroiled (more on that later). Whether the Finn makes the move to Red Bull, stays at Lotus, or moves back to Ferrari as some have suggested, is yet to be known. We do know that Kimi plays a pivotal role in the foundation of next season’s grid.

For now, though, the team needs to focus on making the car as fast as is possibly can. Lotus knows how to have a championship challenge with one car, now they need to get the second back in the fight.

 

The Bad:

Mclaren:

Much like Lotus, Mclaren expected to ride the wave of a brilliant, if inconsistent, 2012 campaign into the next season. Nothing of the sort happened. The long and the short of it is, Mclaren is nowhere near as competitive as they would like. I sound like a broken record there, as does the team when they give out press releases, but just as Mclaren’s performance expectations have come up short, so has the patience of many of the team’s fans.

Mclaren approaches the next race in Belgium with a lot of confidence. Jenson Button has already stated that a podium in very possible, as the low-downforce characteristics of the track should play into the hands of the car’s relative lack of natural downforce. As a field leveler, Belgium should do a good job for Mclaren, and could provide the team their only opportunity to really shine this season.

The summer break gives everyone involved at Mclaren time to sit back and reevaluate the season. Focus has already shifted to 2014, which should simplify the rest of the campaign. Nevertheless, it will be a long, hard battle to get back in front of Force India, who have outshone the might of Mclaren this season.

The Midfield:

In general and relative to last season, the midfield teams have taken a step back from the top teams in terms of performance. In 2012, the odd pole, front row start, or podium became not all that odd. The field last season was spookily close in terms of performance. One could look at 2013 as a bit of a disappointment then, as teams like Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso barely break into the top-10 these days. While their financial capabilities are nowhere near those of Red Bull, Ferrari or Mercedes, the midfield teams have disappointed me a little. I expected much more from Williams and Sauber who, after fantastic seasons last year, should have taken better advantage of the extra money they earned by finishing higher in the standings. That failure is on them.

What does not rest on their conscience is the fact that they still didn’t have as much money as the top teams, nor did they have the same means to implement said money. Regardless, the aforementioned teams can only look back onto the first half of the season with a sense of regret. They will be aiming to improve things after Spa.

 

The Ugly:

Romain Grosjean:

Objectively, Romain Grosjean has had a nightmare season. Compared to his teammate, he has a little over a third of his points in a car that should, and is, consistently in the fight for podiums and wins.

Subjectively, Romain has had a troubled season. A combination of bad luck and negative public perception has made the low points of his season overpower the high points. Nevertheless, the cold hard points are what wins championships, and the truth of the matter is Romain doesn’t have that many of them.

Can he turn his season around in time? Or course he can. Will he? I believe so. There is a championship winning driver in him somewhere. We’ve seen flashes of it in the past two years. It will flourish in time.


Pirelli:

I admire the work Pirelli has done for the sport in the past three years. That isn’t the most popular position to take, but it is one I am proud admit. However, the events that unfolded during the British Grand Prix were inexcusable. Both Pirelli, who should have been more vocal for change, and the teams, who employed a dangerous and stupid tire conservation tactic, are to blame for the exploding rear tires that wreaked havoc during that race.

This whole season has been ugly for Pirelli. They have been the bearer of a constant and incessant barrage of negative feedback from fans, and the inaction from the FIA, FOM and teams when changes needed to be made. Yes, the season has been ugly for them. But how much of that ugliness is actually their fault?

Secret Testing:

After the Spanish Grand Prix, Mercedes and Pirelli conducted a secret tire test in Barcelona. Over three days, Pirelli hoped to resolve some of the issues it was coming under fire for while using a contemporary car, rather than the outdated 2010 model it is stuck with.

The FIA and the other teams took a dim view of this secret operation, and Mercedes and Pirelli were duly called up to the FIA’s International Tribunal. The hearing ended in a reprimand for Pirelli, who were under the impression that all the teams knew about, and had the opportunity to participate in, the test, and a ban from the Young Drivers’ Test for Mercedes as punishment for any performance gains they may have made from the test.

This whole mess was extremely unfortunate, and highlighted all the issues that currently plague the sport at the moment; unworkable conditions for Pirelli are the main source of headache right now and have a knock-on effect for the rest of the sport. Until those issues are fixed, this and Pirelli will continue to be an ugly part of the sport.