Category: Formula 1

One week on from the events of Suzuka, and with the Korean race looming, this is probably the latest one can leave it to pay tribute to the achievements of Sebastian Vettel, confirmed as 2011 world champion with four races to go last time out. In clinching 3rd place on the podium, Sebastian not only put the crown beyond the mathematical reach of anyone else but in so doing became the youngest double world champion in the history of the sport – perhaps fittingly, taking the record from his compatriot and hero Michael Schumacher. Not for nothing perhaps was there a tremble in his voice over the radio to his jubilant team – who could soon follow up his achievement with the Constructors crown, sealing their dominance over what has been a close-fought season on track, if perhaps not in the points table.

As often follows such instances, many were quick to lay plaudits at the feet of the 24-year-old from Heppenheim, some going so far as to claim that Schumacher’s other records were even at threat. It is ironic that such comments should come after what was by Vettel’s standards a slightly underwhelming performance, unable to match Jenson Button (who was on imperious form, it has to be said) or catch Fernando Alonso towards the end. Yet to call 3rd place “slightly underwhelming” perhaps underlies the standard Vettel has reached this season, and the confirmation of the talent which made itself known back at Monza in 2008. All of this should be put in perspective, however, so as to fully appreciate Vettel’s season for what it is – and more importantly, avoid claiming what it is not.

What, then, has led to the superlative rise of Sebastian Vettel? Is he, as many claim, the standout star of his generation set to dominate the sport for years to come? Or is he someone gifted with an incredible car and one of the best teams on the grid who simply made the most of what fortune gave him? The reality is perhaps somewhere in the middle. There is no doubting that the strength of the RB7, and the Red Bull team in general, has played a considerable part in Vettel’s success this season. The car has appeared dialled in at practically every circuit, with only Germany and perhaps Japan proving something of a blip, and its outright pace is clear to see. With 14 poles and 9 race wins at the time of writing, the RB7 has cemented its place in the pantheon of great F1 cars – unsuprising perhaps given that Adrian Newey oversaw its design. Likewise, the whole team, from the design and engineering staff back at the factory to the mechanics and pit crew at races, have ensured the car is as reliable as it is fast (the team suffering zero mechanical failures thus far) and that pitstops have ranked among the fastest of the season. Without these, Vettel’s charge to the title would have been considerably harder than it proved to be.

Yet to put his success solely down to the team and the car, good as they are, is to do Vettel a great disservice. He is not, after all, the only quick driver with a top team this season – his teammate Mark Webber is a very fast, very capable driver, and both McLaren and Ferrari have shown form this season. Similarly, Vettel has not entirely had things his own way this year, one example being having to hold off both Button and Alonso at Monaco for some 20 laps with tyres past their best. It also fails to explain why Webber has not been able to match his teammate’s towering form, polling 194 points to Vettel’s 324 at the time of writing. Webber is no mug, after all, and yet Vettel has established a clear gap this season. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Vettel has coped far better with the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres this season – reports indicate he was the only driver to visit Pirelli in the off-season, and although it is difficult to say what advantage (if any) this conferred it suggests his thought process on tyres was more advanced, and this itself may have given him the edge. Certainly, he has tackled the balancing act of exploiting grip versus saving tyres better than most. Secondly, his entire demeanour this season has shown incredible maturity, remaining calm under pressure (in contrast with the unfortunate Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa) and continuing to learn despite his title success last year. His racecraft has improved in particular, with some bold passes (Alonso in Monza) and more importantly an ironing out of most mistakes. Even when some are made, as in Canada, he has demonstrated the ability to recover from them and remain consistent – and it is this, more than anything, which explains his dominance this season. His lowest finishing position all season has been 4th, and while his rivals have had opportunities to close the gap or establish themselves as challengers none have done so successfully. McLaren’s drivers have struggled to overcome inconsistent car performance (and the occasional brain-fade), while Ferrari seem incapable of racing two cars effectively or making them quick enough to mitigate the problem. The way has therefore been left clear for Vettel to sweep up, and he has obliged.

So where to now? The best indicator for that will probably be the next four races; now that the pressure is off in terms of the championship, we should hopefully be able to see what Vettel is fully capable of. He will no doubt want to make the most of the pressure being off, particularly given the changes due in for 2012 and their potential to negate some, if not all, of the RB7’s strengths. Should he continue to maintain his superlative form, despite the title being a done deal, then that will certainly give some of his rivals a few sleepless nights going into 2012. On the other hand, should some weaknesses start to creep in then this may spur them on to give him a harder run for his money next year. Either way, the question of whether Vettel ranks as one of the true greats will take much longer to answer. What is certainly clear, however, is that he has thrown down the gauntlet for the rest of the field, and it will take some effort for them to rise to the challenge. Far from being a source of boredom, Vettel’s dominance this season could make 2012 the most interesting season for years…


We need to talk about Lewis…

As a restart of this blog (and a long overdue one at that), it seems only fitting to pick up on a topic which seems to be becoming all too familiar in 2011: the torrid season of Lewis Hamilton. Despite being undoubtedly one of the top drivers of his generation, and racing for one of the most successful teams on the grid, it is difficult to conclude that Lewis’ season has been anything other than a disappointment – as much as 5th in the championship can be one, at any rate. The highs of races such as his win at the Nurburgring are outweighed by his two collisions at Monaco, nearly taking his teammate out with an opportunistic move at Canada and the more recent incidents at Spa and Singapore. This is not by any means what was expected at the start of the season, so what exactly has gone wrong for the Brit?

First, the obvious should be removed. It is clear that Red Bull, via Adrian Newey, have built a car which is head and shoulders above the rest of the field, and that Sebastian Vettel has made the best possible use of this car. The dominance on display at Singapore was that of a driver not only completely in tune with the car, but also in control of his own mind and oblivious to the pressure around him. These are traits which, sadly, are not present in the McLaren camp, particularly on Lewis’ side of the garage. The MP4-26 is not itself a bad car – it has won 4 races this season, after all – but it is not as consistently fast as the RB7, and its drivers have responded in two contrasting ways. Jenson Button, widely accepted as the more calculating of the two, has accepted the situation, taken his time and made the best use of opportunities as they arise. In contrast, Lewis has responded by trying to make up the difference with his own talent, almost akin to his hero Ayrton Senna. What worked in the 1980s, however, does not work with the 2011 Formula One car, and as such it results more in over-driving and counterproductive loss of pace. This leads to greater frustration borne out in impatience, which then leads to the incidents Lewis has been caught up in all too often. It is not unique to Lewis – it happens in all forms of racing to all kinds of drivers – but what is striking is that rather than becoming better as the season wears on, it appears to be getting worse. Both his tangle with Kobayashi in Spa and the run-ins with Massa in Singapore were completely avoidable, and in Monza his efforts to stay out of trouble saw his pace suffer considerably and his racecraft appear almost tentative. For some reason, Lewis is struggling to strike the balance required to be a contender in modern Formula One.

Why is this the case? Two possible causes emerge. The first is that Lewis’ increasingly showbusiness off-track life is starting to become a distraction – having popstars such as girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger and Rihanna in his entourage at races and appearing on the Jonathan Ross show may do wonders for his public profile, but ultimately do not aid his racing. This is not to say a racing driver should be a Puritan – far from it – but given Lewis’ complaint after Silverstone regarding the number of sponsor commitments he had to fulfil there does seem to be a contradiction at work. A distraction from racing is a distraction from racing, whatever its end goal, and there lies the risk of his off-track life overshadowing his on-track performance. There is precedent in this regard in the form of the late James Hunt, and while it is unlikely Lewis will follow this example it serves as a reminder of the need for balance. The second possible cause is that, since the split from his father Anthony, Lewis’ management has not been fit for purpose. Simon Fuller’s XIX is well regarded and looks after other sports stars, but whether it provides enough of a grounding influence in the bubble that is Formula One is debatable. Much as Anthony could sometimes be overbearing (pulling Lewis out of a triathlon contest with Jenson being a notable example), he did seem to be a calming influence and this is equally apparent in the progress of his latest protege, Paul di Resta. Indeed, placed alongside his fellow Brit the contrast is stark, and of the two the Scot is looking more likely to deliver on his equally considerable potential.

What, then, should be done, if anything? Alarmist responses are not the answer – Lewis is clearly still a top-level driver, despite his troubles, and he can easily point to the pace of his car and the occasional out-of-character error from his team at playing their part in his situation. At the same time, however, merely ignoring the issues as they arise will do no good either. Lewis is good enough to win more world championships, yet in having silly accidents and accruing penalties as a result he makes it more difficult to mount a sustained challenge. His frustration is understandable; at the same time, it cannot be allowed to dominate his attitude on-track. If it does, the danger of following James Hunt in being a considerable talent yet winning only one championship becomes more real – and that would be a real tragedy, both for Lewis and for the sport. As such, it is perhaps time for McLaren and XIX to start giving Lewis guidance rather than affection or publicity, and address the issues which have become increasingly apparent in his driving. He is still young, and there is still time, but in the fast-changing world of F1 neither may remain the case for long.