3 wins out of 4 for Nico Rosberg
Nico Rosberg drove a dominant race in his Mercedes last weekend to secure his third victory in four races and to creep back up to within 10 points of team mate Lewis Hamilton’s table topping score. This was also his second victory at the Red Bull Ring two years on the bounce.
Rosberg had the better of his double world champion team mate for the majority of the weekend and was generally three tenths quicker per lap in every session, despite each practice session and qualifying experiencing wet/damp/dry weather conditions.
Qualifying was a strange but exciting duel between the two Mercedes drivers and the final laps for each driver where Hamilton spun off at turn one and then Rosberg shot off the track at turn nine were very uncharacteristic mistakes from both drivers but they weren’t the only ones struggling.
As the lights went out at the start, Hamilton experienced difficulty with clutch control whereas Rosberg flew off the line and into the lead. Sadly…that was that, that was the race won and there wasn’t an ounce of excitement to be seen at the front so TV coverage quickly switched to the midfield and thanks to that we saw plenty of exciting action.
The first corner accident between Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen brought out the safety car and that unfortunately put pay to any chance of Lewis Hamilton having an immediate crack at Rosberg in attempting to retake the lead. Hamilton was swarming all over the gearbox of Rosberg but by the second corner yellow flags were out and the safety car had been deployed. It stayed out for several laps.
Rosberg has been credited this weekend with finally managing to beat his team mate in a straight race and not through Hamilton destroying him or experiencing a fault. Despite the team suggesting that Hamilton was experiencing clutch problems, Hamilton was magnanimous in defeat and accepted that Rosberg had the better of him. Rosberg was faultless, as he was last year and this track really suits him. He deserved his victory and thankfully we still have a championship battle on our hands.
Is F1 killing itself slowly?
Once again it was the moaning, despairing and criticizing of F1 that dominated the headlines of the weekend over the racing itself. It has to stop. F1 is the only sport in the world where many of it’s own “people” shoot it down and get away with it. That’s probably because F1 is hugely reliant on it’s participating teams, sponsors and creditors. Because it’s money driven then people involved in it who don’t see results that they want or who don’t like certain rules will complain using their own investment or position as leverage.
We keep hearing “the spectacle needs to be improved” but can it be?? Look back in time at the so say hey day of F1 and the last turbo charged era of the late 1980’s. The podium position finishers very often lapped the entire field, it was utter demolition. Look at Mansell’s title winning year of 1992 where the sheer demolition of his opponents practically had the big names of the day like Alain Prost queuing at the door to get a drive for Williams in 1993. 1998/1999 for McLaren were special years where Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were able to battle each other for the title without any real fear of defeat. Fast forward to 2000-2004, Ferrari and Schumacher were miles ahead from anyone, similarly a few years later (2010-2013) Red Bull enjoyed the same level of dominance where Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber practically destroyed every record in the book and here we are now with Mercedes doing the same thing.
Critics will moan and complain that F1 is stagnant and that having just one competitive team is killing the sport but I would tell them to look a bit closer because that is just the way it is. It is rare to have drivers from three or four teams challenging for the title until the final race of the season…that is why 2010 was one of the best seasons in living memory (I highly recommend you watch the 2010 season review). The biggest trouble with F1 is that it’s too political and nobody really says it how it is.
You may notice that F1’s biggest critics currently are deposed champions Red Bull. I have difficulty in trusting their intentions and their opinions on how F1 can be improved because Christian Horner (Red Bull team principal) is saying everything now that his opponents were saying about him when his team were dominant. He DID say that it was tough if his competition couldn’t keep up with Red Bull, he DID say that Red Bull shouldn’t have to make compromises because they’d developed a dominant package and he DID say that teams who criticized his teams dominance should think about whether they should be in F1 at all.
I’ve always had a harsh opinion of Red Bull and Christian Horner and that’s because I don’t like the way they’ve dealt with being blasted off of their pedestal. He did make some sense though when talking about the F1 strategy group being abolished. In short, the F1 strategy group compromise of a panel of top F1 team representatives (McLaren, Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and this year Force India) who make decisions about how F1 can best be run/improved. Of course they require approval of the FIA, Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone etc but the very fact that only a handful of teams have representatives in the group shows the “class divide”. This is a fundamental problem because it’s Victorian. It’s the rich leading the poor because they have greater wealth and wealth means power.
We’re in the 21st century and I think that Christian Horner’s suggestion that the strategy group should be abolished and replaced with a strategic group headed by Ross Brawn is a great idea. Again, I do feel that Red Bull are sharing positive ideas but their deal is “change or we’re off”. Bernie can’t afford to lose Red Bull because that would mean Toro Rosso would disappear as well and that would be very bad for business.
F1’s business is beyond our comprehension because we just don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. It often comes down to the powerful teams and how they back others into a corner and give them no choice. F1 fights itself. The race wasn’t that bad was it? The midfield performances of the likes of Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado, Romain Grosjean, Max Verstappen, Felipe Nasr were all really exciting.
Raikkonen gets the danger he craved
I wonder if Kimi Raikkonen’s own words of “F1 needs more danger” were resonating through his head as he was almost decapitated by a flying McLaren last weekend in a freakish incident involving Fernando Alonso. After the start and turn one Kimi accelerated and his rear wheels spun up causing his car to violently fish tail left and right. He collected Alonso as he headed left towards the barrier and squeezed the McLaren up on top of his Ferrari where they came to a rest some way up the barrier with Kimi staring at a car that was only 1 metre away from crushing him. The violent force of the impact wasn’t really picked up on camera but the resulting gouges in the McLaren and Ferrari showed just how violent it was.
A strange incident but each one has an explanation. Once cars are in freefall after a crash they are just expensive pieces of broken machinery that will go where an impact or sudden force dictates it will go. My initial explanation was that the current shape of the cars has something to do with it. The cars are currently very rounded and flat with bulging side pods and they are light. If you got two plastic, empty drinks bottles, lay one up against your skirting board at home and then push into it with the other one held firmly in your hand then the one by the skirting board would simply pop up into the air with the force. The curved edges of both F1 cars did just that and the McLaren simply slid up onto the Ferrari. Thankfully nobody was hurt.
Kimi was a rattled man last weekend. Again he put in a poor show during qualifying and didn’t really get going during the practice sessions either. He was swearing over team radio and also during post race interviews. The pressure is now well and truly on him. Personally I don’t feel that he will get offered a new contract next year and I think that Arrivabenes’s eyes are firmly on Valteri Bottas (Williams) Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) and maybe, just for the record Max Verstappen?? (Toro Rosso). Kimi is regularly playing second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel and needs results now if he is to have any chance of revitalising his chances…I think it’s too late for him.
Penalties, penalties, penalties…
The penalty system in current F1 has become a saga of its own. The details and reasoning behind some of these penalties are very complex and other journalists have explained them better elsewhere so i’ll leave that to them. Not only are some of the penalties outright ridiculous but they are a good indicator of what F1 is currently being criticized for, especially in terms of cost cutting.
At Austria the Mclarens each took a 25 place grid penalty. There are only 20 cars on the grid! This is like when an American sentenced to prison for armed robbery receives a 200 year sentence! So what to do with this kind of penalty? Carry it over to the next race? Serve as many grid places as possible then serve the rest as a stop go penalty, drive through penalty or a time added on penalty? The rate of penalties for engine changes, gearbox changes and any other change outside of the regulations had already escalated in Canada but in Austria it reached an entirely new level.
The trouble with mass penalties is that it begins to affect the standard of the racing. Cars qualify out of position and so that part of the weekend suffers because teams play to their penalties and sacrifice various elements of their weekend or even concede their race weekend and use it as a test.
The biggest problem with the type of penalties we have in F1 is that they highlight fundamental flaws with the sport. Cost saving is high on the agenda yet “big names” like Red Bull and McLaren are all too quick to take a penalty so that they can use a new engine or other components for example. This is significant because the smaller teams simply cannot do that. The big teams may not want to but they can afford to and still costs are not being fully considered and the spread of wealth is far too uneven. The power units are expensive as well. We shouldn’t have to hear that teams have “opted” to take a penalty because it suits them. A penalty should punish them for doing something wrong. Then there raises the question of whether it’s correct to punish drivers for a team misdemeanour and vice versa?
Midfield drivers shine
It wasn’t only Nico Rosberg who enjoyed a strong weekend in Austria. Despite the race not being a memorable classic, some of the performances of the midfield drivers were excellent.
Pastor Maldonado delivered another strong weekend for Lotus and appears to be growing. In April I reported that Lotus were growing impatient with him and he was at risk of losing his drive due to his accident prone, gung-ho attitude. Fortunately Maldonado has upped his game with some brilliant drives in Monaco, Canada and Austria. His duel against Verstappen was breath taking to watch and his near accident at turn one was one of the best “saves” I’ve ever seen. Maldonado was slip streaming Verstappen on a straight with DRS (drag reduction system) wide open and trying a dummy down the inside. Travelling at a clocked 201MPH his car fishtailed violently left then right at an angle of 50 degrees. It was down to his supreme control that he was able to correct the car and carry on. A few months ago I believe that he would have ended up in the barrier or even took out Verstappen in a nasty accident but he is growing and I’m glad because he’s fantastic to watch when he’s good.
Nico Hulkenberg received the plaudits he deserved as a Le Mans 24hr endurance winner and what an achievement that was. Still competing in last years Force India, Hulkenberg had a sterling weekend and secured a 6th place finish after many overtakes and brilliantly executed battles.
Nasr, Verstappen and Sainz-Jnr were once again fantastic, racing with maturity and level heads. It’s brilliant for the sport to see these rookies maintain this level of consistency.
So after 8 races and an in season test we have almost a carbon copy of last year. Hamilton was expected to run off with the championship lead but after the ever presence of bad luck that seems to follow him closely and a spirited comeback from Nico Rosberg then the championship is only divided by 10 points. Rosbergs advantage that he seems to enjoy in many of the early to mid-season European races has prevailed. He’s not been as consistent as he was last year and once again he has benefitted from Hamilton’s misfortune.
If Rosberg can consistently perform like he did in Austria then he may be able to mount a significant title challenge. He will seriously hurt Hamilton if he beats him at Silverstone next up but it’s inconceivable that Hamilton will drop in form. Hamilton will regain the upper hand and as a double world champion he knows exactly what he needs to do. The championship battle is well and truly on and just like last year, it’s a straight fight between the Mercedes men.
Nobody can touch Mercedes. No other team has managed to get any where near them in terms of development and have simply not managed to mount a serious threat. After the first few races Ferrari looked in good shape but I think they will be hugely disappointed with where they are. Despite a race win they haven’t been able to push on and get closer to Mercedes. Everybody thought that they had finally found a parallel with Mercedes’ pace after their Friday practice lap times but practice is practice. Teams try different things and no conclusions from the final practice results should be taken seriously. The one’s who believed that Ferrari could achieve an Austrian pole based on Friday’s practice results look foolish now.
McLaren and Red Bull have a lot of work to do. Red Bull are in disarray and now rumours are circulating that Christian Horner’s job is on the line. This has been flatly denied by Red Bull but the ever increasing presence of former F1 driver and former Toro Rosso co-owner, Gerhard Berger in the Red Bull garage has led some to suggest that Red Bull will appoint him as team principal. This may be unfounded. Horner is shrewd, clever and knows F1 business, he would not be easy to replace.
Their race pace is slow and they have issues with Renault. Ferrari have apparently offered them an option to supply engines to them but Red Bull are wary of becoming a customer to one of their rivals. Red Bull’s only realistic option will probably be to coax a new engine supplier into the sport but with their constant F1 “bashing” it may be difficult for them to convince any potential suppliers that F1 is a positive sport to be involved in.
Honda have made slight progress on their reliability over the course of the Austrian in season tests. Alonso clocked up 100 laps on the second day which is a fantastic result. The trouble with Honda is that their engine is slow but horribly unreliable. McLaren’s problems aren’t simply confined to just the engine either. Issues with gearboxes, clutches and electronic components have hindered their progress in a big way. Hopefully they will improve but at the moment it’s all talk and little action.
Not only are Honda and Renault miles behind Mercedes but Ferrari and more significantly the other Mercedes teams are miles off as well. Felipe Massa did well to earn a 3rd place in Austria but for most of the year they, as the fastest customer package to Mercedes, have been around 30 seconds behind the works team at the finish line. Engine inequality is a subject that is gathering momentum. Sauber team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn has emphasized that the other engine suppliers in F1 should be allowed to develop and catch up in order to ensure that F1 becomes more competitive. The basis for her assessment was a valid one in that in the German touring car series, DTM, Mercedes were allowed special permission to upgrade and develop their engine in season to compete with the likes of BMW. This led to a more competitive grid, happier teams and happier fans. I can’t see many F1 teams being happy to allow their rivals to catch up on their advantage but something must be learned from DTM.
F1 is taking a bashing at the moment and it’s not helped with the likes of former four time world champion Alain Prost speaking openly about Formula E becoming bigger than F1 within the next five years. I don’t believe that because I believe that F1 will change for the positive but anyway, Silverstone is up next, the British fans will be out in full support of their home drivers and I’m sure we’ll have a great race.