Cyril Abiteboul: Hulkenberg ‘instrumental’ in Renault’s on-going reconstruction

Renault’s team principal Cyril Abiteboul has praised out-going Nico Hulkenberg, describing him as ‘instrumental’ in the team’s on-going reconstruction and progression.

Hulkenberg has been unable to secure a seat for the 2020 season, meaning that the race in Abu Dhabi this weekend will be his final curtain call in F1, for the time being at least.

Numerous rumours have swirled about what the future holds for him. He held talks with Haas and Alfa Romeo, but both teams opted to retain Romain Grosjean and Antonio Giovinazzi respectively.

Links have also been made to seats in DTM and IndyCar, but Hulkenberg himself has shot these ideas down.

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault F1 Team RS19 on the grid.
Brazilian Grand Prix, Sunday 17th November 2019. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

His first race in F1 was all the way back in 2010 when he drove for Williams, securing a maiden pole position in tricky conditions in Brazil at the end of the year.

That pole position, though, has been the highlight of an F1 career that has seen him fail to secure even a single podium finish. In fact, Hulkenberg holds the record for the most F1 races entered without a podium.

He joined Renault in 2017, and team principal Cyril Abiteboul has praised Hulkenberg’s efforts in the team’s rebuilding process.

“His contribution has been instrumental in our reconstruction and progression,” Abiteboul said. “We have harnessed his experience and ability to deliver strong results and he has played an important role in Renault’s Formula 1 journey. We want to ensure we end our time together with the best result possible.”

Renault had finished ninth out of eleven teams in the Constructors’ Championship in 2016 prior to Hulkenberg joining, but he helped them better that result to sixth in 2017 and then to fourth in 2018.

2019, though, has been more difficult. Renault are just about clinging onto fifth place going into Abu Dhabi with Toro Rosso just eight points behind them thanks to Pierre Gasly’s podium finish in Brazil.

Nico Hulkenberg (GER) Renault F1 Team at turn 1.
Brazilian Grand Prix, Thursday 14th November 2019. Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Hulkenberg himself crashed out of a potential podium back in Germany, leaving him to wonder what could have been but nonetheless appreciative of the good times he has experienced with the team.

“The season has admittedly had its fair share of ups and downs,” he said. “Obviously, my seventh-place finish in Australia was a positive way to kick start the season for us, and the results we delivered in Canada, and later Monza, shows the progress we’ve made on tracks where a strong power unit is essential. Overall, I would say we’ve learnt a lot and can be confident of finishing the season well in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s been three memorable years for me at Renault. There have been highs and lows, but I’ve enjoyed my time as a driver here. We’ve had some great results and some ‘nearly’ moments, all of which I’ll remember for a very long time.”

 

[Featured image – Renault F1 Team]

Vettel vs Leclerc: The making of the most explosive partnership ever?

It was coming, wasn’t it?

In the dying laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix, following a safety car,  Ferrari’s talented Monegasque upstart Charles Leclerc dived down the inside of team-mate Sebastian Vettel going into turn one. Nothing wrong with that move. On the exit of turn three, however, came a moment that epitomised what has been a long and painful struggle for Ferrari over recent years.

Attempting to gain his position back, Vettel re-created his 2010 drama with then-Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, and moved across on Leclerc, terminally damaging Leclerc’s wheel, and giving himself a race-ending puncture.

I know we can’t use one incident to suggest that this is already the most controversial team-mate battle in F1 history. It doesn’t come close to Senna vs Prost or even Hamilton vs Rosberg, but what happened in Brazil was the culmination of an incredibly tense season at the Scuderia. It was a volcano that wasn’t going to stay dormant for long.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Vettel has a history of being more than a little incident-prone. Even during his spell of dominance at Red Bull, there were cracks under pressure, clashes with rivals, and an almost permanent sense of volatility. Then, after his move to Ferrari, there were incidents in Baku and Singapore in 2017, and multiple errors in 2018.

This year, his rivalry with Leclerc has seen a stark contrast with Vettel’s placid and comfortable relationship with Kimi Raikkonen. This year saw him come up against a young, quick, aggressive, motivated and extremely talented Leclerc. This pressure has in some ways pushed Vettel to become a better version of himself, but the mistakes have always been there, as has the flare that comes with competitive team-mates who simply will not accept number two status at the most historic and successful team in F1.

Success may seem distant for Ferrari at the moment, but as a team that dominates all of the papers in Italy and is the biggest talking point of a proud racing nation, the headlines are never far away. In typical Ferrari fashion, they have occupied them at every opportunity this year, but mainly for the wrong reasons.

On multiple occasions at the start of the year, Ferrari opted to swap their drivers over when chasing the quicker Mercedes cars, despite their cars being equal in pace. These decisions were puzzling to put it kindly, and led to friction that would dominate the rest of the season.

Singapore saw one of the most contentious incidents yet between the two. Leclerc was leading from pole, but Ferrari decided to give Vettel the undercut and inadvertently gave the German the lead of the race in the pit stops. Vettel won the race, ahead of a furious Leclerc.

At this point, tempers were sizzling, but Ferrari insisted that they had the situation under control.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

They came close to blows on the first lap of the US Grand Prix, and as soon as they went side-by-side in Brazil, you knew what was coming.

Ferrari have worked themselves into a situation that they cannot control. As in many races over the last couple of years, they have cost themselves valuable points with a combination of nonsense strategies and driver errors.

Regarding Vettel and Leclerc, there’s no need to explore specific points during races when Ferrari mishandled their driver situation. Forget China, forget Spain, forget Singapore, and forget Brazil. Ferrari were in trouble before the season even began.

Mattia Binotto started his role in the worst way possible. Before Melbourne, the new team principal stated that Ferrari would favour Vettel in the first part of the season and perhaps give Leclerc equal standing if he proved his worth as the year progressed.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a team boss make such a foreboding start to a reign as team boss. These comments will have created a lack of trust and a polarising divide between Vettel and Leclerc, because how are they supposed to race if they know they constantly have a team decision hanging over their heads? How does Leclerc hope to prove himself as a Ferrari race winner if the team will swap him and Vettel over anyway?

It gave the perception that Vettel had become Ferrari’s darling, and that Leclerc would have to be the bridesmaid. Binotto’s comments made it a personal battle between his drivers and they hadn’t even hit the streets of Melbourne for the weekend yet.

Would the tale have been different had Binotto been a bit more considerate in his comments? It’s difficult to tell, but I certainly feel there would be less animosity in Ferrari.

However, if you’re a neutral looking for exciting headlines every race, then Binotto’s a genius!

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Let’s face it, F1 has often felt stagnant in the last few years, because intense rivalries have been hard to come by. Lewis Hamilton’s battle with Valtteri Bottas has always been quite passive and amiable, despite Mercedes’ favouring the six-time champion.

Max Verstappen has had a grudge with Esteban Ocon, who will race for Renault next year, since their junior days.

Those rivalries aside, we are yet to see a battle to the extent of Hamilton and Rosberg. Looking back over the years, there has always been friction in such an emotionally-fuelled sport. The aforementioned battle of egos between Senna and Prost springs to mind, as does Mansell vs Piquet. Jacques Villeneuve wants to fight with everyone he meets, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s beef with both Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?

This friction gives us talking points other than Mercedes and Ferrari winning, with Max Verstappen, to his credit, often helping to spice up the action at the top of the field.

However, it almost seems like F1 doesn’t have room for mind games and antagonism any more, despite other racing series proving it can still be done.

MotoGP riders do a good job of getting into each other’s heads, and the same applies to Formula E. Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi don’t exactly have soft spots for each other.

And that doesn’t come down to snide remarks and below-the-belt comments in the media like we often see in F1, this is about drivers passionately confronting each other about incidents and making sure everyone knows where they stand on conflicts. Remember Sebastien Buemi going round screaming at every driver he saw after race one of the 2017 season finale in Montreal?

This is what F1 needs more of and hopefully the new 2021 regulations will bring the field closer together and we can see more on-track fights and debates between drivers every race.

Of course, we’re not asking drivers to get the boxing gloves out. All we want is drivers racing closely and entertaining us, giving us something to talk about. Is that so much to ask of a sport that has given us so many jaw-dropping moments over the years?

So, could Vettel vs Leclerc become a rivalry for the ages? Quite possibly, but let’s hope it’s not the only one we have to talk about in years to come.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview: The curtain falls on 2019

Abu Dhabi sees the curtain drop on another Formula One season. However, it is a slightly tatted curtain and, much like the Greatest Showman – sorry to anyone who thought it was good – it is the end of a somewhat dull and monotonous year.

Of course, it has not been all doom and gloom. There have been some stunning races in 2019, like Austria, Silverstone, Germany and Brazil. However, the exciting and scintillating moments we associate so strongly with F1 have been few and far between.

With that said, the F1 bandwagon arrives at the 5.5-kilometre Abu Dhabi circuit – an excellent and enjoyable track for the drivers, not so much for the fans.

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Abu Dhabi first appeared on the calendar in 2009, with Sebastian Vettel winning the race, and has played host to the last race on the calendar for eight of the last ten years.

However, the races have not always captured the eye for wheel-to-wheel magnificence. The circuit is rather clumsy to look at, especially the underground pit exit – which I am sure seemed a good idea to begin with – where it is difficult to mount cameras and no-one can actually see.

What rescues the track is the setting. The backdrop of the exhilarating Ferrari World, the grandstands and the pit complexes, and of course the pristine hotel with the LED lit roof, make the Abu Dhabi track quite the spectacle, and gives it a real feel of an end-of-season race. Speaking of which, this is the first time that the Formula One championship will have ever ended in December – hopefully the teams have remembered to pack their advent calendars.

Lewis Hamilton is a four-time winner in Abu Dhabi, and having wrapped up his sixth title already, he would love to see out the year in style with another victory.

As form has it, Mercedes have a good chance of another one-two finish under the lights. Abu Dhabi is predominantly a power track, but this has been a surprising area of inconsistency for both Mercedes and Ferrari all throughout the year, with the Honda power impressive in the back of the Red Bull and Toro Rosso cars. This was exemplified when Pierre Gasly out-dragged Lewis Hamilton to the line for a second placed finish in Brazil, so this race could yet be an interesting one.

2019 Brazilian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

2020 will likely not include Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, and will definitely not include Williams’ Robert Kubica, and so these two drivers will probably make their F1 farewells this weekend. Although, the return of Esteban Ocon, mixed with Hulkenberg’s impressive consistency, could lead the German to believe that he has a shot at a seat in the future. Kubica’s seat at Williams seat is still up for grabs though.

Following Carlos Sainz’s remarkable podium finish in Brazil – McLaren’s first since Melbourne 2014 – he and Lando Norris, who has excelled in his first season in F1, have sealed fourth in the constructors’ in what has been a superb improvement on the last six years for the British team. 2020 could see them propel themselves even further in the right direction, but they are still a way off third best team Red Bull at the moment.

The real battle is for fifth in the Constructors’ between Renault, who currently occupy the spot, and Toro Rosso, who are just eight points behind. The midfield battle has been extraordinary this year, and Racing Point and Alfa Romeo are still mathematically in with a shot, but they are extreme outsiders. Haas are set to stay ninth in what has been an abysmal year for Grosjean and team-mate Kevin Magnussen, who managed to get both cars into Q3 in Brazil, only to fail to score points in the race.

All eyes are on the midfield then, but there are plenty of other places to look around the beautiful setting at the Yas Marina Circuit as Formula One heads into the final race of the decade.

(Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

And at the end of what has been a tumultuous year, let’s not forget those we have lost.

Charlie Whiting passed in his sleep just before the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the year. The race director was one of the most influential pioneers in F1’s pursuit of safety. He was forever on the side of the drivers and the fans, had a human side that simply could not be matched, and he had an infectious smile that warmed the heart. What he did for Formula One is the reason we are able to watch races in the way that we do today. He will be missed.

We also said goodbye to Niki Lauda. The Austrian was a three-time world champion who drove for both Ferrari and McLaren, and even continued to achieve great success after his horrific accident at the Nurburgring in 1976. In his later years, he worked as non-executive chairman of Mercedes, but he was so much more. He played a part in race weekends, strategies and was a phenomenal mentor to their drivers. Lewis Hamilton was so affected by his passing that he was excused media obligations before the Monaco Grand Prix, demonstrating the effect that Lauda had on the entire paddock, both on a racing level and on a personal level.

And finally, we lost promising French star Anthoine Hubert, whose crash at Spa in the summer claimed his life and left Juan Manuel Correa in hospital. Correa is now recovering at home. Hubert was a ray of sunshine in the F2 paddock, and had the racing prowess to match. His death rocked motorsport, and a minute’s silence was respectfully held on race day in both F1 and F3 on the Sunday – F2 chose not to race that day. He was a brightly shining star taken from us far too soon.

Though we will move on from 2019, we, as a motorsport family, will never forget them.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

The tide is high, HMS Gasly sails again

Know what? I’m not even going to start this piece with a touching build-up. P2. A Toro Rosso, gleaming with blue, red and glorious silver in the Sao Paulo sunlight, crossed that Interlagos finish line in second place. The man himself leapt out of his machinery, lungs burst, cameras attentive, to let the world know they just witnessed reality, no mirage – his two fingers were raised to make it abundantly clear. Pierre Gasly has his name in lights again.

Anyone who knows me, is even so much as the slightest attentive to what I stand for, knows this isn’t so much an objective piece detailing a reputation rebuild for the ages as an unashamed love letter. It’s one born of anguish for a man who can cure me of my own at the drop of a blue Toro Rosso cap, joy for a fresh talent batting the jokes and speculation for six and above all else, well, it being my time to be this emotional.

Listen to the team radio, the full one. I implore you, if you already haven’t. It’s loud, it’s booming and it’s the two most poignant minutes of just what that result means to Pierre. It’s the safeguard from a trophy-less career but also so much more. It’s when the boxer has to summon up the strength among the lights of a stadium, and the imploring from a soliciting crowd to get back up. It’s the hit that brings them back into it.

For a few out there, this was probably a textbook if moment, a case of what could be possible if the right chips fell down. To me it was the inevitable, it was only a matter of when. If we’re taking this boxer analogy and running with it, Pierre’s one of the most punch-drunk sportsmen around and is still standing. He’s a warrior.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 17: Second placed Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 17, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

From the moment he first came to my attention on that debut GP2 weekend in Monza, 2014, it’s been a non-stop barrage of challenges, all of which he’s risen to with aplomb. A 2015 season in the series, his first full shot, concluded with level-pegging with his DAMS teammate Alex Lynn, taking none of the team’s two wins. 2016 was a perfect retort – now at PREMA, Pierre took five poles and three out of three at the season’s end, four wins and most importantly the last GP2 championship title in history.

Then, Super Formula. Tasked with proving his mettle against sage, experienced competitors well-versed in the art of Eastern racing, Pierre was a Suzuka-bound typhoon away from potentially winning the series, only losing out by one point to then-one time champion Hiroaki Ishiura. Does ‘losing’ feel like the right word? It feels like a victory to me, given the circumstances.

And we know the story of Pierre’s first stint at Toro Rosso. That sterling drive in Bahrain, one that saw him finish fourth with an almost Prost-esque controlling drive among the midfield in only his seventh Grand Prix, kick-started a season which bestowed other stand-out results; seventh in Monaco, sixth in Hungary, more points in Belgium and Mexico all with a Toro Rosso package spearheaded by a Honda engine going through severe development gains and the spate of penalties that come with.

That was the smooth among the rough, woven together like different colours of yarn in a sewing machine. But this year is one I’ll hold above the rest as his most heart-warming, inspirational seasons – for those twelve races with Red Bull, the sewing machine was sparking, threatening to blow while the needles couldn’t be found anywhere. And once the thing finally powered down, he set about fixing it again… and he’s succeeded.

32 points in 8 races. Average finish of 8th. Points in 75% of Grand Prix, Q3 appearances in 50%. Amongst it all, Pierre has had emotional hardships to deal with that no-one should ever face – the loss of a close friend the racing community will always sorely miss in Anthoine Hubert, a man whose colours adorned Pierre’s helmet in Monza, whose memory was right up there on that Interlagos podium and whose legacy will always shine bright in his heart.

A demotion to Toro Rosso which meant Pierre had to adapt mid-season to different circumstances and changed expectations, with a mission already thought complete by 2018’s end back on the to-do list, along with such personal circumstances, has been handled with the utmost capability and dignity. Pierre’s been fighting back against the tide for months now, and that glorious Sunday in Sao Paulo was above all else the validation of his hard work.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 17: Second placed Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso celebrates in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 17, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

And that result was everything I dreamt it would be and more. Hearing the sheer unbridled euphoria of a man who’d had to stomach so much pain over the course of 2019, seeing the special bond he and his Faenza squad be beamed out on show to the world and knowing that as tough as times may get, he’ll always have that one special moment holds stratospheric meaning to me. As I stated before, this is my personal love letter and not a showing of balance – this was the time I finally got to hear the man I’ve poured my heart into for over five years utter the words ‘this is the best day of my life’.

And I felt it, because in that whirlwind of post-race emotion it honestly felt like the only words present in my brain were emanating from Pierre’s mouth. It felt like mine too. It felt like vindication, for the both of us. It felt like I’d have the most wonderful reference point to look to and remember every time I hit the hard times in life. It felt, for the want of a flashier term, so damn freakin’ good. The pain of 2019 is fading away, the belief is stronger than ever, and there’s a boatload of joy ready to be enjoyed in 2020. HMS Gasly is sailing again.

 

[Featured image – Mark Thompson/Getty Images]

Hamilton’s title party in Sao Paulo: Brazilian Grand Prix Preview

The 48th edition of the Formula One Brazilian Grand Prix will play proud host to the sixth title party for Lewis Hamilton, who wrapped up the championship last time out in the United States.

At the venue where he dramatically snatched his first championship from the tense and seemingly unrelenting grip of Felipe Massa 11 years ago, Hamilton may have it wrapped up already this year, but a third victory in the homeland of his hero Ayrton Senna would be another proud career moment for the man who needs eight more wins to equal Michael Schumacher’s race win record of 91.

While time has passed since the craziness of 2008, and the world championship has unscrupulously changed hands, the passion for racing at Brazil has never changed. From the days of the great Brazilian favourite Ayrton Senna to now in 2019, the race in Sao Paulo continues to be a fan favourite for drama and intense racing.

The 4.3 kilometre speed-fest of a circuit saw a champion claim the revered title three times in the space of seven years between 2006 and 2012, but Sebastian Vettel’s triumph seven years ago, beating Fernando Alonso after an incredibly tense and unbelievably exciting season, was the last time it has happened.

Much of this is indebted to Mercedes’ dominance after Vettel’s storm to 2013 glory, as well as Hamilton and former Mercedes team mate Rosberg taking their rivalry and psychological grudge matches to the final race in Abu Dhabi on two occasions.

Max Verstappen at the 2019 USGP. Image courtesy of Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

However this, by no means, goes to say that the spirit of racing in Brazil has departed – it stays strong to this day and continues to draw in the big crowds who want to see the most thrilling, high speed entertainment. And they have been treated with some spectacular helpings in recent times.

Wherever Max Verstappen has gone in the last few years, contentious moments yet magical performances have often followed in extremely close proximity. As was seen in 2016 with his immense wet drive to the podium and last year, when he clashed with long term rival Esteban Ocon while lapping the Frenchman, costing him the win to a fortuitous, grateful and jubilant Hamilton.

Interlagos this year could yet provide another opportunity for Verstappen to claim his maiden win in beautiful Brazil. A tough and demanding middle sector provides opportunity for the Red Bulls to make up time on the Mercedes cars, who should dominate the long run up from Juncao to turn one. It could be a chance for Alex Albon to claim his first podium in Formula One, having been confirmed as Verstappen’s team mate for next year. As for Ferrari, it is unknown where they will be, after inconsistencies due to a change in fuel flow system, which was controversially altered after appeals from other teams about illegalities in the car’s power. What we know for sure is that Monegasque Charles Leclerc will be bumped down at least five places from his qualifying position due to an engine change.

BrazilGP tyre information.Image courtesy of Pirelli Media

Due to the stunning combination of power and downforce, there will hopefully be another tight midfield battle between the likes of McLaren, Renault, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso. One or two of the midfield teams however, such as Haas, have already turned their attentions to 2020. The American team who would love points this weekend though after yet another horrible experience – this time at their home Grand Prix in Austin – last time out.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff will be absent this weekend for the first time since 2013, but smiles on Mercedes affiliated faces will certainly not be, as Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton look to grab another win for themselves at Sao Paulo in what has been a wonderful 2019 season.

BrazilGP infographics .Image courtesy of Pirelli Media

Featured image courtesy of Ferrari S.p.A.

US Grand Prix Preview: Hamilton’s American dream to finally become reality

Having missed out on winning a dream championship in the ultimate sporting holy grail last year, Lewis Hamilton has a chance to realise this goal 12 months later. He needs just four points this weekend to seal a sixth world championship.

It would make him only the second driver in history to claim six titles, and put him one behind the great Michael Schumacher. What’s more, for the first time in his career he is set to win the championship three years running. He would be one behind Sebastian Vettel for consecutive championships won (2010-2013) and two behind Michael Schumacher (2000-2004).

The stats are both remarkable and stunning. Hamilton is a living legend of the sport right in front of our eyes, but for him, and many others, it is not just about the numbers.

It was evident last year, when Kimi Raikkonen took the win away from Hamilton, that a moment which would have achieved hopes and dreams conceived long ago had escaped Hamilton’s grasp. It was no secret that he would have loved to claim his fifth title at what is considered to be the home of world sport, with some of the most energetic and adoring fans of not just Formula One, but of many others too. To win the championship in the US, like he did in 2015, would be another huge accolade for Hamilton, and it is something that would mean so much to him personally.

His title rival Valtteri Bottas, however, will still be full of belief that he can at least overshadow his team-mate’s inevitable title celebrations with a victory at the 5.5-kilometre-long Circuit of the Americas. While it is almost impossible for him to win the championship from here, Bottas had a positive race in Japan, winning from second on the grid. But a stunning drive from Hamilton in Mexico, out-qualifying Bottas while the Finn’s Mercedes took a huge bite out of the barrier, saw him fend off Sebastian Vettel with a mega second stint to take a well deserved win, and put himself in prime position for the championship this weekend.

2019 Mexican Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

The Mercedes cars are expected to be challenged well again by Ferrari this year. The two teams been typically evenly matched at this circuit in each of the last two seasons, but Ferrari’s advantage in power this year will leave them hopeful of a victory again as they did last year, and team principal Mattia Binotto’s plans for ‘better race management’ in the last three races of the season may aid them achieve a win in what has turned out to be another heart-breaking season for the Scuderia.

The tricky first sector will certainly help to bring the Red Bulls into play, with Alex Albon’s impressive performances seeing him prove his worth at the Austrian team. He has out-scored Verstappen since they have been team-mates, although this has been down to a few slices of misfortune for the Dutchman, as well as one or two clumsy errors. Red Bull, however, should not be expected to challenge for the win, frustrating for them after a thoroughly wasted opportunity by Verstappen in Mexico.

Coming home this weekend are Haas, but we should not expect a particularly happy home-coming for them in what has been a confusing, tiresome and dire year. Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are really just looking forward to 2020 now, but the home crowd may just inspire a point or two from the French-Danish partnership which has been tested and strained at various different points of the season.

Though Lewis Hamilton’s partnership with race engineer Peter Bonnington will not return until Brazil, Hamilton has no intention of holding back on the title party this weekend, but Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari have no intention of seeing him stand on the top step on race day.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

Mexico 2019 – Mercedes triumphs, while Ferrari’s strategy continues to lack

The Mexican Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton victorious, but not sufficiently so to crown him the 2019 Drivers Champion. Hamilton’s win also saw his 100th podium for Mercedes, and saw Ferrari give up the top spot on the podium thanks to poor strategy calls once again.

The opening moments of the race delivered excitement, as Grands Prix often do. With Charles Leclerc making an excellent start, his teammate Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, and Max Verstappen jostled for position.

Vettel easily got the best of it (though he made brief contact with Leclerc), retaining second position, while Red Bull’s Alex Albon and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz got a large boost, climbing to third and fourth respectively. Hamilton fell back to fifth, and while Verstappen initially fell back to eighth he quickly suffered a puncture when making an early overtake on Bottas, leading to an immediate pit stop. He ultimately rejoined the race in 20th.

Don’t worry, Verstappen fans – he performed an admirable drive, finishing in sixth and taking the Driver of the Day award. He demonstrated excellent control and patience, regaining several places as other drivers stopped for fresh tyres. When he began overtaking others later in the race, he did so smoothly, with few if any elbows out. Verstappen’s choice of hard tyres led to early speculation about the possibility of a one-stop race.

There was a Virtual Safety Car deployed after the initial carnage while the marshals attended to the debris from the opening collisions, but the race then proceeded Safety Car-free.

(Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the opening lap tussles were some of the only exciting moments of the race. While the order changed a bit, the top five drivers throughout the race largely remained Leclerc, Vettel, Albon, Hamilton, and Bottas. The race ended with Hamilton in first, Vettel in second, Bottas in third, Leclerc in fourth, and Albon in fifth.

Though they were few, there were nonetheless some exciting moments. Local hero Sergio Perez (Checo if you’re nasty; all apologies to Janet Jackson) made an excellent early overtake on Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, to the delight of the crowd. Daniel Ricciardo made a spectacular, but failed, late overtaking attempt on Perez. He badly overcooked the attempt and was forced to run wide, cutting several corners. While this did allow him to return to the track ahead of Perez, Ricciardo wisely ceded the position back to his rival.

While there was some other overtaking, it was mainly clean and competent with the defending drivers ceding position when it was obvious they weren’t able to defend successfully.

There was minimal contact between drivers after the first lap. Verstappen and Kevin Magnussen made brief contact on lap 27, but the stewards declined to investigate further. The most memorable other contact came during the final lap. As Hamilton crossed the finish line, Daniil Kvyat returned to his old form and ran straight into the back of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, destroying his rear wing and ending his race practically within sight of the finish line. This initially cost the German two places, dropping him from ninth place to eleventh, though the stewards quickly issued Kvyat a 10-second penalty. This dropped Kvyat to 11th, and brought Hulkenberg up to 10th along with its accompanying point.

Pit stops provided some drama. McLaren’s Lando Norris was given the signal to exit the pit too early, with his left front tyre not completely secure. While he was able to stop prior to crossing the pit lane exit line and his crew was able to remedy the issue, Norris never recovered from this mistake and remained last until his retirement on lap 48.

(Photo by Joe Portlock / LAT Images)

Antonio Giovinazzi’s right rear tyre caused him considerable difficulty as well, which was compounded when the jack was released too quickly, before the tyre was secure. Charles Leclerc wasn’t immune to pit issues either – trouble with the right rear tyre cost him four precious seconds on his second stop.

Tyre management proved to be key in this race. Ricciardo deserves special mention for his tyre management. He was able to maintain respectable pace for 50 laps on his opening set of hard tyres, maintaining sixth place for the last 30 of those 50. It was this show of durability that likely convinced Red Bull to keep Verstappen out on his set of hards, which lasted him for an amazing 66 laps following his early stop. Perez ran the final 51 laps of the race on hards, and Hulkenberg ran 52 laps on his. Vettel also deserves credit for his tyre management, turning in a respectable 40 laps on his initial set of mediums between qualifying and the race.

Indeed, had Vettel not resisted calls for him to prepare to pit on lap 25, the result might have been very different for him. Ferrari, it seemed, had a very different model of tyre performance in this race and were unable to adapt in time to salvage the win. The pit wall’s call for Leclerc’s early stop on lap 15 was premature. All of the front runners started their race on used mediums, but the others handily demonstrated that their tyres were good for many more laps – eight more laps for Hamilton, 21 more laps for Bottas, and 22 more for Vettel. Had the Scuderia sent Leclerc back out on hards, his race might’ve gone very differently as hard tyres amply proved to deliver incredible life.

With three races left, the top of the pecking order is fairly settled. While it is mathematically possible for Bottas to claim the Drivers’ Championship, it is not likely. Similarly, while Red Bull could pass Ferrari for second in the Constructors’ Championship, it is similarly unlikely.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, it’s the midfield where the excitement lies. Toro Rosso and Racing Point are in the fight for sixth and if Renault doesn’t finish strongly in the closing rounds it’s possible that they could find themselves slipping to sixth or even seventh.

And what can we say about Williams? McLaren has recovered from their slump and is showing a return to form, but Williams remains incapable of finding their way forward. On the other hand, they have managed to score one point. Recent seasons have seen some backmarkers finish with zero, but seeing the once powerful team fall to last over the course of a few short seasons still gives pause.

Formula One returns to Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez next year for the Mexico City Grand Prix. Same race, different name.

 

 

[Featured image – Steve Etherington]

Mexican Grand Prix stewards have set a dangerous precedent

When Valtteri Bottas crashed heavily at the end qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix, his fellow drivers all slowed down when passing the incident and the subsequent double-waved yellow flags. That is, all but one.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s boisterous,  energetic, and head-strong superstar, did not lift, and went on to set a fastest final sector and improve on his provisional pole time.

This was a clear breach, not just of regulations, but also his safety, Bottas’ safety, and the safety of the marshals who needed to recover the stricken Mercedes.

Verstappen would have got away with it, but he was caught out by… himself. The post-qualifying press conference featured a moment which could only be described as absolutely bizarre. When asked about his failure to slow under yellow flags, Verstappen said, “It’s qualifying and, yeah, you go for it. But like I said before, if they want to delete the lap, then delete the lap.”

(Photo by Will Taylor-Medhurst/Getty Images)

The comments were completely devoid of consideration, and showed a complete obliviousness to the fact that he was admitting to a very dangerous breach of the sporting regulations, ultimately landing himself in trouble.

Following the press conference, the stewards decided to open an investigation into how Verstappen went quicker after Bottas’ crash, when his rivals all slowed down. He was then awarded a three-place grid penalty, and will instead start the race from fourth, with Charles Leclerc now on pole for the seventh time this season. Sebastian Vettel is promoted to second, giving Ferrari a front-row lock-out.

Verstappen’s mistake can be forgiven. Nobody was hurt, and in a roundabout way, he was aware that what he had done was wrong, and he appeared to accept that punishment would be coming his way. After all, he is a young racing driver, and consideration and evaluation of risk can be easily skewed when adrenaline is high, particularly during a qualifying run.

The real issue lies deeper. And this is where the blood boils.

It took Verstappen admitting his error in the press conference for the stewards to do anything about it, even after it was clear he set a purple final sector time following Bottas’ crash. It was clear, obvious and blatant that he had not slowed for the yellow flags. The stewards also had data from his car available to them, but either chose to not look at it or, even more outlandishly, see the data and opt not to award a penalty.

(Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Either way, whatever actions they had endeavoured to take – or not take as the case may be – they, at first, decided to not award a penalty for a clear breach of regulations. This was a farce. They made themselves look foolish, and it was frankly an embarrassment for the sport.

But more than that, it was a breach of duty of care from the stewards to be so dismissive of the fact that a driver on track had risked the safety of so many people.

Their initial actions, or lack thereof, displayed a complete disregard for safety, and a serious lack of awareness of the precedent they are setting for the future. It was a statement that any driver can now go flat out through yellow flags after a serious incident, risk hitting someone on the way, and get away with it so long as they make sure they keep their mouth shut about the incident afterwards.

And it is very clear that F1 has somehow not learned its lesson from past cases, like that of Jules Bianchi in 2014, who tragically lost his life after failing to slow for yellow flags following a crash at Suzuka. Despite this, with no due diligence whatsoever, the stewards still saw fit to not act on a driver failing to slow for an incident when they know what the impact can be, and a precedent has now been set for the future –  it is a dangerous one.

It was a further example of stewards at a Grand Prix refusing to do their job, not only as rule enforcers, but as responsible adults charged with ensuring the safety of everyone involved at the event, and this is unacceptable.

If the stewards are not willing to act appropriately, and if they are happy to allow someone to endanger lives, then it shows an immaturity that cannot be condoned, especially at an event where the risks that come with motor-racing are so high.

It resonates with me that, not only have the stewards this weekend shown themselves to be unfit for the job of rule enforcers, but they are also evidently cannot be trusted with making sure that drivers in the future are completely aware that actions such as Verstappen’s cannot be tolerated.

Instead, F1 is left in a position where drivers are at risk of being uncontrolled by FIA regulations, which is why the events of yesterday’s qualifying are more significant, and dangerous, than many in the sport are making it out to be.

 

[Featured image – Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images]

Legendary Races Week: 1999 European Grand Prix

The underdog. Why do we love them so much, huh? There’s just something about witnessing the flawed become bulletproof; when a driver’s stars align for that one glorious time, a team defies all the odds, or even both, it’s an occasion like no other.

And when I think of underdogs in Formula One, I catch my mind thinking back to the 1999 season. Heinz-Harald Frentzen challenging for the championship with the privateers Jordan after a sour exit from Williams, Eddie Irvine mounting his only title challenge, Mika Salo’s mid-season super sub duties… there were plenty of them.

That year’s European Grand Prix symbolised the theme of the season perfectly in that regard. The weekend started with the Drivers’ Championship in the balance – both Mika Hakkinen and Irvine were level-pegging at the top on 60 points, Frentzen’s annus mirabilis had him just ten points behind on 50 and David Coulthard was just behind on 48. Michael Schumacher was still nursing his broken foot sustained at the British GP, leaving Mika Salo to fill his vacant seat at the Scuderia.

The day belonged to a team that would cease to exist as we know it the next year, though: Stewart Grand Prix. Late in the day, short on the margin, it never seemed as though three-time World Champion Jackie’s namesake outfit would replicate even one of his wins. Neither did it seem like their elder driver, Johnny Herbert, would have time left to add to his two Grand Prix victories, and was fast becoming a set-in-stone figure in the history books. 

So when he qualified 14th for the race, all hope of that changing was a pipe dream. Frentzen took pole to continue his own underdog story, while Irvine was 9th, behind Coulthard and Hakkinen in 2nd and 3rd. Herbert’s teammate Rubens Barrichello, he himself a Stewart defective to Ferrari for 2000, was just behind him in 15th.

The race began with a delayed start, as Williams’ Alex Zanardi and Minardi’s Marc Gene lined up out of sequence on the grid. The top five cars all jumped the start, but their blushes were saved. When the start did take place, it wasn’t long before the real drama started – Damon Hill’s Jordan suffered an electrical failure on the first lap, causing Alex Wurz to swerve into Pedro Diniz and send the Sauber driver into a dramatic barrel roll. 

Diniz was able to walk away from the shunt, and while the race began to mellow as far as the rigidity of carbon was concerned, the fate of other mechanical parts across the grid were to be far worse. The top six remained static for the opening stint – Frentzen led with aplomb from the McLaren duo led now by Hakkinen, Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella and Irvine. Not long after the Irish title hopeful passed Fisichella though, did the rain begin to pour.

And the raindrops sparked the rising of a tech-xodus. Hakkinen and Irvine were the first to blink, but Ferrari’s pit crew had their new hope wait 28 seconds in a delayed stop, dropping him down the field. The dice of retirement rolled on race leader Frentzen first, striking down his Jordan with the same technical failure his teammate Hill suffered. His title ambitions were dented, and the story of the underdog had its ink smudged.

The racing gods sought to clean up that ink, when they oversaw the next drop-out – Coulthard gambled on dry tyres in the worsening conditions, and on lap 38 his McLaren met its maker in the barriers. Fisichella inherited the lead ahead of Schumacher after Hakkinen was forced to conceding into replacing his wet tyres with new dries, and under the radar unexpected stars were emerging.

Lap 49 saw Fisichella spin out in another botched case of leader’s demise, kissing his maiden victory into the arms of a man seeking his own first. As soon as it was sent his way, however, a rear tyre puncture cruelly denied him the chance to notch Williams’ first win in almost two years, and left him ruing what could have been along with a string of broken-hearted challengers. But the next inheritant of the lead was to have his day against the odds.

Herbert had been building a head of steam all race long, and emerged from the lower reaches of the podium before the final double-blow into an unlikely lead, shouldering the weight of his team’s prayers. Hakkinen and Irvine were scrambling to keep their title hopes alive while a sea of malnourished drivers were enjoying the photosynthesis of World Championship points – they just had to cling onto them. Minardi hadn’t scored in four years, so when Luca Badoer found himself in fourth with 13 laps to go tears were beginning to flood in the eyes of Faenza faithful.

There were tears that lap, but they were ones coming agonisingly from Badoer – his car broke down, and he broke down with it by the side of the track. Jarno Trulli was a fine second for Prost Grand Prix just ahead of Barrichello in the second Stewart, and it was to stay that way come the end of the race. The podium was filled out for the first, and so far the only, time with teams named after and owned by ex-F1 drivers. Gene managed to salvage a point for Minardi, taking the private champagne back off the ice. But this was Johnny’s day, and even Hakkinen’s fighting fifth couldn’t dampen the energy around him and his team.

With just one more season on the horizon, this marked the end of Johnny’s podium escapades. None tasted sweeter. Unlike the other two, there was no shade of a World Champion hanging over him, nor a winning machine expecting of such results. This time the underdogs had their day all to themselves. Aside from the attrition, aside from the battles, aside from the conditions, the reason Europe 1999 was so brilliant is because of the message it sent. You can be in a race against time, with the worn tyres of doubt and the broken front wing of resignation, but as long as you stay in the race, your day will come. It’s why we love the underdog, after all. 

Legendary Races Week: 1957 German Grand Prix

Juan Manuel Fangio’s record in motorsport speaks for itself.

In a career that spanned nine World Championship F1 seasons, ‘El Maestro’ won five titles for four different teams (Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Maserati), and took victory in 24 of the 52 races he entered. That 46.15% success rate is the best of any driver to have ever raced in F1, a feat which is made all the more impressive when it considered that, in the period he raced, there was an average of just eight races per season.

Of those 24 wins, Fangio arguably saved the best for the last.

He arrived at the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife for the 1957 German Grand Prix with a chance to claim a fifth World Championship.

Things initially looked promising when Fangio qualified on pole, but at the start of the 22-lap race he dropped back to third behind the Ferraris of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. By the third lap, Fangio managed to retake the lead, making use of his softer Pirelli tyres, and set five new lap records in quick succession.

However, Fangio had started the race with only half a tank of fuel, and so on lap 12 he came into the pits for refuelling and for new tyres.

Even by 1950s standards, his stop was slow. A fumble with a wheel nut meant Fangio lost over a minute and he emerged back out on track over 40 seconds behind Hawthorn and Collins, who were on a ‘no-stop’ strategy and harder Englebert tyres. Any attempts to retake the lead would have to be done on track.

To Ferrari, it looked as if Fangio’s first two laps were positively sedate, and they signalled to Hawthorn and Collins that it looked like Fangio would not be a threat, lulled into a false sense of security.

By Willy Pragher – Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46534377

Owing to the technology of the time and to the length of the Nurburgring circuit, the teams were only able to communicate with their drivers once every fourteen miles using boards held out from the pits, and Fangio used this to his advantage. He put the hammer down, carving into their lead at a rate of 10 seconds a lap. Once Ferrari realised what the Argentinian was doing, it took them a long time before they were able to make Hawthorn and Collins aware and urge them to pick up the pace.

On lap 18, Fangio completed the first ever lap of the Nurburgring with an average speed above 90mph. He would go on to break the lap record a further ten times, with his fastest lap of 9mins 17.4 seconds a huge 8.2 seconds quicker than his pole time.

Fangio ate up the distance between himself and the top two drivers and, on lap 21, he caught and passed both Collins and Hawthorn to retake the lead.

Three and a half hours after the race started, Fangio took the chequered flag to claim victory, 3.6 seconds ahead of Hawthorn.

His fastest lap was over 24 seconds faster than the lap record from the previous year, and neither Hawthorn nor Collins could get within 10 seconds of it. To add the icing to the cake, his victory meant Fangio wrapped up a fifth World Championship, a record which would take 47 years to be beaten.

“I have never driven that quickly before in my life and I don’t think I will ever be able to do it again,” Fangio would later say, somewhat prophetically. He would retire the following year having not won another race.

His performance at the 1957 German Grand Prix has rightfully gone down in history, cementing the race’s position as one of motorsport’s most legendary.