Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The German F1 – some thoughts…

Amid the fuss about Ferrari 'fixing' the result, it's been easy to overlook a few significant developments that occurred in Germany...

Ferrari Have Found Their Pace
Ferrari have been quick ever since they introduced a major upgrade package - including a rear blown diffuser - at Valencia, but circumstances have hitherto denied its full point-scoring impact. A certain controversy has distracted attention and submerged proper appreciation of their on-track resurgence, but both Red Bull and McLaren, beaten by almost half a minute, will have left Hockenheim with deep concerns.

With the exception of Montreal, and even there it is arguable whether McLaren's apparent superiority was genuine, this was the first time since the opening weekend of the season when the Red Bulls have been reduced to second best. With eight races remaining, it was an ominous step forward by the boys in red.

The World Championship Is A Five-Way Fight
With victory, Fernando Alonso has clambered to within 30 points of championship leader Lewis Hamilton. Due to the alteration of the points system, the deficit sounds substantial, but it is actually only the equivalent of a single race win and a bit. In previous years, the difference between Hamilton and Alonso would be measured at approximately 13 points. The Spaniard is very much back in the reckoning.

Moreover, Germany provided two other critical reasons to regard Alonso as a leading challenger, if not the leading contender to usurp Hamilton. The first, as stated above, was the demonstration of Ferrari's superior pace. The second was the realisation that, following the team's tacit withdrawal of Massa from contention, Alonso need not concern himself with his team-mate and has assumed the position of first among equals at Ferrari. Alonso's number-one billing is a luxury that none of his other World Championship rivals possess and could yet prove a critical advantage.

Alonso's Brilliance Has A Flaw – he is a tantrum throwing rich brat!
Describing Alonso as a deserved victor in Germany is to drift into dangerous territory, but he was indisputably the outstanding performer of the weekend. He qualified half a second ahead of his team-mate and was clearly the faster of the two Ferraris in the race. But for Vettel's chop off the line, Massa's defeat would almost certainly have been emphatic.

The limit to the adulation, however, is reached with the reminder of Alonso's petulance and his reaction to adversity. "This is ridiculous," he shrieked on the car-to-pit radio after his first - and only - attempt to pass Massa at full speed was rebuffed. It was a low moment, revealing, once again, the petulance that makes Alonso so difficult to admire. Whereas others, such as Mark Webber, would respond with renewed determination, Alonso's typical response to adversity consists of toy-throwing. It cost him points in Valencia and this weekend's real ridiculousness was his failure to change his ways.

Massa Still Cannot Work The Hard Tyres
As the man himself put it, "what happened today is something that has happened in many races this year: when I put on the hard tyres I struggle". The Brazilian just isn't suited to the tyres' characteristics and nearly slithered off the track three times in the first two laps after his pit-stop. "So I know why sometimes I'm a little bit penalised, it's just because of the very hard tyres that we have this year," he added. But these tyres aren't exclusive to Massa and his failure to adapt is a black mark on his CV. He is making hard work of a difficult job.

McLaren Are Playing Catch-Up Again
It's becoming the team's default position. Still in the process of experimenting with the blown diffuser they failed to successfully introduce at Silverstone, there was further headscratching inside McLaren's garage this weekend when pictures were published apparently showing the front wings of the Ferraris and Red Bulls flexing.

Though the team has repeatedly demonstrated in the past 12 months that it is adept at closing gaps and developing new parts, the constant need to play catch-up in a three-way title fight is not a position of preference. Nor can it be sustainable. Already working on a substantial upgrade, the last thing McLaren need ahead of a three-week factory closedown and another race this weekend is a second new concept to be rushed off the production line.

Vettel Just Can't Get Off The Line
How different - and bereft of talking points - the last two races would have been if the pole-sitter had led into the first corner. Vettel was so bogged down on the line in Germany that, in his own words, he was "lucky not to stall". It is food for thought, and presumably an internal investigation at Red Bull, that Vettel has so far won just one of the six grands prix he has started from pole this season.

Mercedes Struggles Are Worsening
But for Vettel's poor start setting in train a sequence of events that Ferrari spectacularly mishandled, Sunday's post-race focus would have been trained on the humiliation endured by Mercedes. In front of their home support as well as a troop of company executives, both of their cars were lapped by the top three. Sometimes there is too much of a good thing - as their race unraveled, the team could have been forgiven for wishing for a mechanical gremlin to excuse their lack of competiveness.

If it is true that attention - and resource - has already switched to 2011, then Michael Schumacher's renewal of vows for next seasons makes crystal-clear sense. He doesn't want to spend the next four months touring around the midfield in an abandoned car just for someone else to enjoy the fruits of Mercedes' refocus next March.

Button's Decision To Leave Mercedes Has Been Vindicated
As an enhancement of his World Championship prospects, Button's decision to join McLaren was vindicated long ago. Despite pitching himself in direct competition against Lewis Hamilton, the fact of the matter is that Button possesses a greater chance of retaining his title at McLaren than he would if he had remained at Mercedes.

A statistic worth highlighting at this juncture is that Button currently holds more points than the two Mercedes drivers, Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, combined.

Renault Are Also Falling Back
The team's cash-flow shortage is such that they have reportedly requested an advance on money due at the end of the season.

The disclosure that the team have had to tighten their belt - and possibly even mothballed development work - tallies with the impression they have, along with Mercedes, fallen back towards the also-runners. As a result, the top three appear to have broken away into a league of their own.

It's a significant development in the World Championship because it means that, but for mechanical failure or unfortunate circumstances, McLaren - the current leaders of the Constructors' Championship - should be able to finish no lower than fifth and sixth in the eight races still to be run. Red Bull, trailing by a mere 28 points, will not be unduly bothered. But the likelihood of the McLarens being able to collect a decent haul of points in all the races to come is a large obstacle in the way of Ferrari closing a gap that currently stands at 92 points. This weekend, their 1-2 pulled back just 20 against McLaren's 4-5. One more mistake would cause Ferrari to surrender their hopes.