Book Review – Niki Lauda by Maurice Hamilton

As a motorsport fan I’ve rarely felt the level of righteous indignation I experienced in September 2013, when Heart FM egregiously used this caption under a photo of Niki Lauda and a footballer. Admittedly, that footballer was David Beckham, but who hasn’t heard of Niki Lauda?

Never fear, however, for Maurice Hamilton is here to put that injustice to rights with his biography of the great Austrian, fittingly titled Niki Lauda.

The expression GOAT is bandied about a lot these days. That’s ‘Greatest of all Time’, for those of you who like to wave at trendy acronyms as they pass you by. Reading Hamilton’s book, which is based on testimonies by journalists, peers and friends, as well as the forthright opinions of the man himself, it’s clear that Lauda would have been among the first to say that GOAT is not really applicable to him. The term implies a natural ability that is seen rarely in the history of a sport; your Ronnie O’Sullivans, Mo Farrahs and Lance Armstrongs.

Okay, maybe not that last one.

What Lauda can easily be described as is a legend of F1, with three world titles as a driver and decades of involvement in the sport out of the cockpit.

Lauda disliked the misconception that he was a walking computer, thinking in binary terms and coldly assessing risk. This was rooted in his idiosyncratic and abrupt way of speaking, and his often harsh criticism and high expectations of others. He ignored the fluff and superstition of sport, and built a legacy from his own self-belief, business acumen and intelligence. He couldn’t drive around a car’s problems, but he could communicate effectively with his team to correct issues. Everything he did was for a purpose and was done with intricate attention to detail. And if there’s one thing that is apparent in the fond comments by those interviewed by Hamilton, it’s that Lauda possessed a great sense of humour and was deeply kind; aspects of his personality perhaps less widely accepted than his immense fortitude.

Niki Lauda focuses on Lauda’s adult life and career, glossing over his youth and family except in how they affected his early ambition to go racing. Instead, the book gives engaging insight into Lauda’s thought processes and how his work ethic and experiences set him apart from his contemporaries. He had ambition, but it went beyond driving. He had passion, but it was tempered by shrewd decision-making. He was outspoken, but he never exempted himself from his blunt criticism.

Niki Lauda is not just a book for fans; it’s the story of a fascinating life, written with love.

To get the full Lauda experience, the impressive tome Niki Lauda: His Competition History by Jon Saltinstall was published in 2019. Read in conjunction with Hamilton’s biography, it beautifully illustrates Lauda’s racing career. This book doesn’t belong on a coffee table; it is a stunning testament to a career that spanned the decades when single seater motorsport was precariously balanced between appalling danger and creative innovation.

Formula 1 is an inherently photogenic sport, and the sheer beauty of the vintage images in this book are breathtaking. For true fans of both Lauda and the history of motorsport, it’s well worth the £60 asking price.

 

Niki Lauda: His Competition History is published by Evro.

https://www.evropublishing.com/products/niki-lauda-his-competition-history

Niki Lauda by Maurice Hamilton is published by Simon and Schuster.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Niki-Lauda/Maurice-Hamilton/9781471192012

 

 

 

 

Michael Schumacher – a true great but left with no competition

When we watch sports – be it tennis, football (round and pointy) or our favourite motorsport series we look for the new star, that person who will shake things up. Senna did that in the Tolman, Niki in the Ferrari and Lewis in the McLaren, with one of the most awe inspiring first season’s in F1.

There’s one person I left off of that list, and that is Michael Schumacher. His rise to fame was nothing short of amazing jumping from Endurance cars  to F1 in the Jordan and then to eventually win seven Formula One World Driver Championships.

True greats end up with two situations which can be blemishes on their career, firstly teammates that look grey in comparison. Senna, Prost, Lauda, Alonso and Hamilton – barring when teammates were world champions themselves had less than stellar teammates, either via talent not being the same or because of contracts, is one thing that is to be expected. You aren’t going to be a world champion in a no.2 seat – ask Mark Webber. McLaren and Mercedes have mostly for instance run with no preferred main driver. Hamilton/Alonso and Senna/Prost are the two that most remember. But since Mercedes returned as a works team in 2010, their drivers have no preferential treatment. Alonso more or less dismissed the talent of Hamilton, and then scrapped with his teammate for the most of the season, perhaps to his cost and his Championship chances. Senna and Prost, were completely different in how they raced, both were racers. They mostly worked “well together” until well that corner at Suzuka and Senna, being Senna wasn’t happy with the tarmac being “inferior” to the P2 slot of Prost’s Mclaren.

One team in Formula One has traditionally has had contracted driver placings, that is Scuderia Ferrari S.p.A.. The system of number one and two drivers has worked well for them up until the mid 90’s. That started to erode, first with the paring of Eddie Irvine and then later with Rubens Barrichello from 2000. Both were fast drivers, and if Michael wasn’t there, they’d have probably won championships with Ferrari.  Both Barrichello and Irvine suffered from retirements, we won’t ever know if those were due to testing parts or for genuine reasons.

The 2006 Ferrari team at Brazil at Schumacher’s last race for Ferrari. Image courtesy of Ferrari

The second situation which nearly every dominant world champion faces (Senna and Prost didn’t as much), is that if you start to win as many world championships as Prost, Lauda, Senna, Vettel, and perhaps more acutely, Schumacher and Hamilton – well drivers retire, either to race in another series, or start their own vineyard!. Sometimes you are done with the sport, for which theirs many reasons, from health issues to the simple fact of not being good enough to be beat the best. But as a world champion you crave to have the best fight for the championship that you can, ideally not with the little new kid but that one, who has won a lot.

In any sport, you have golden eras, where there isn’t just one great but three maybe four individuals (and teams in team sports) who stand out. In Formula One we’ve had had the late 80’s, where we had, Piquet, Prost, Senna and Mansell whom where fighting for the world championship, they all became world champions.

In the 90’s we had Häkkinen, Hill, Villeneuve, Senna, Prost and Mansell all gunning for the championship. Schumacher won two world championships in 94-95 – early in his F1 career, it was a rich fabric of talent, that were World champions or in waiting. Schumacher became the best because he beat the best. But slowly one by one, they, had their names engraved upon the Formula One world champions trophy. Some jumped to another Series, Mansell to Indycar in 1993. Or others, going to less competitive cars, Villeneuve (British American Racing) and Hill (Arrows). Others simply stayed on a year and retired, Häkkinen and Prost. Senna, of course sadly lost his life at Imola in ’94.

He didn’t have the competition. Those world champion weren’t there, or in uncompetitive cars. Ferrari where the only competition, and Rubens was prevented from racing Michael, which came to a head in 2002 at the Austrian GP with Barrichello being ordered to let Schumacher pass him for the win. This lead to one of the most embarrassing podiums known in recent years.

Schumacher won in 94,95 and then from 2000,01,02,03 and 04 being his last championship win before he retired in 06. Those years (00 to 04) whilst showing his ability as a driver, to win. But you always felt with the team orders that win rate was partly Barrichello’s input as well as his own.

I entitled this piece, “Michael Schumacher – a true great but left with no competition” that is true, his existing competition of world champions left the sport one way or another. But he then had to fight off new competition in the form of Raikkonen and Alonso, whom ended up with three world championships between them. Alonso beat Schumacher in 2005 and 2006, Räikkönen nearly did so in 2003 but bested McLaren teammates Alonso and Hamilton in 2007 by one point.

Featured Image courtesy of Ferrari

Schuey’s Moments of Madness

You cannot talk about Michael Schumacher, without bringing up his various incidents on track. I’ve picked out these particular examples, one of which came before his Formula One debut.

1990 Macau Grand Prix

This event, held for Formula Three cars saw a big battle between him and Mika Hakkinen. On the last lap of the event, having just started the final lap Mika was tucked up under the rear wing of Michael’s Reynard, and didn’t need to overtake the German to win the event. As the Finn went to pass his rival, Michael made the one move which would become a signature of his career and the two cars come together. Mika’s car, run by West Surrey Racing, was damaged on the left-hand side, with broken suspension and front wing. Mika was out, and Michael went on to win the event.

 

1994 Australian Grand Prix

For the next incident, we jump forwards to 1994. The battle that year between Damon and Michael was epic. As the two drivers came to the final race of the year, the Australian Grand Prix, held at the iconic Adelaide street circuit, Damon was just a single point behind Michael, after taking victory in a very wet Japanese Grand Prix. Now on lap 35, having taken the lead at the start of the race from Nigel Mansell who was on pole position, the Benetton driver had a moment coming into a left-hand corner, and he caught the rear of the car, but went wide, hitting the wall on the exit, and almost certainly damaging his car. Damon was around two seconds away, and witnessed Michael re-joining the track. The Brit didn’t know that Michael had hit the wall. Coming into the following right-hand corner, Damon moved to the inside of Michael, but the gap closed down, and the two cars came together. Now, Michael certainly knew that his car was damaged, so, did he move over on his championship rival? My opinion is that he did.

 

1997 European Grand Prix

Moving on to the next incident at Jerez at the end of 1997, I believe that this was pretty obvious to all. The battle between Jacques Villeneuve and the German for that season’s title, as Ferrari looked at the time to win their first championship since 1979 was big indeed, and Michael once more was leading the championship by one point as they came to the finale. The top three set the same time in qualifying with the Canadian on pole, followed by Michael, and then Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Michael took the lead, and Jacques dropped behind his teammate to third place. During lap seven, Jacques passed Heinz, and set about closing the gap to Michael. On lap 22 they both pitted, but Michael’s pace on his new set of tyres was not very good, and Jacques closed the gap down. During lap 47 the Canadian was right with Michael, and took a last gasp move up the inside, taking the Ferrari driver by surprise. Michael attempted to stop the Williams driver, by hitting the side of Jacques car, but this resulted in the steering getting broken on the Ferrari, and the car ended up in the gravel trap on the outside of the right-hand corner. It was a blatant move, and the FIA removed Michael from the drivers’ championship standings.

 

2000 Belgian Grand Prix

Moving onto the next big moment, which happened at the Belgian Grand Prix during the 2000 season. This was different from the previous events as it was not a championship decider, but Mika Hakkinen and Michael were still fighting for the championship. It was a wet to dry race and Mika led the race early on, with his rival down in fourth place. By lap 13 Michael was close enough to take advantage of Mika’s spin to take the lead. The Ferrari ace then had a 5.6 second lead at the end of the lap. As we came to the last few laps, Mika had been catching the leader, who had been suffering with tyres that had been overheating for a number of laps. He’d been driving off line on the Kemmel Straight to cool his tyres down, whilst Mika brought the gap down to just 1.6 seconds with just ten laps left. Coming up the Kemmel Straight with just five laps left, Mika was right on the tail of the Ferrari, and took a look up the inside but Michael edged the Ferrari over on the McLaren and Mika had to back out as the gap closed down. It was over the mark though, as Mika was very close to ending up on the grass. The McLaren driver got his own back however on the following lap with a dramatic move, and one that is well known – yes, that move with Ricardo Zonta in his BAR-Honda in the middle.

Ferrari Media

2006 Monaco Grand Prix

We head to Monte Carlo for the next incident, the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix. Towards the end of qualifying, as Michael had already set the fastest time, and was on pole position, he came to La Rascasse, and didn’t make the corner. Meanwhile, his big rival for the championship, Fernando Alonso was on a quick lap, going purple in the first sector. Back at La Rascasse, the German ace was parked up, meaning that there were yellows being waved. Alonso had to back out of his quick lap, and thus it was suspected that Michael had done this deliberately. The FIA believed it, and after several hours the stewards stripped the Ferrari driver of pole, thus elevating the Renault driver who was second fastest.

Ferrari Media

2010 Hungarian Grand Prix

The final moment came in 2010 during the year when Michael made his return to Formula One with Mercedes-Benz, and it was against his former Ferrari teammate, Rubens Barrichello during that years Hungarian Grand Prix. Coming to the end of the race, the Brasilian, who had qualified his Williams-Cosworth in twelfth position, was right on the German’s tail. Coming onto the start finish straight, Michael’s car slid at the rear mid corner point. Rubens was now within a one car length of the Mercedes-Benz, and was benefiting from the tow halfway down the straight. Michael had his car in the middle of the track, giving space to Rubens to go either side. The gap on the inside was starting to close, but there was good space for the Williams driver to make a move up the inside. By the time that Rubens was halfway alongside Michael, the gap had reduced and the pitwall was getting closer and closer as Michael continued to reduce the space that Rubens had. In the end the gap came right down to the point that Rubens left-hand tyres were on the inner white line near the pitwall, with the result that the right-hand side was very close to hitting the pitwall! Thankfully, the pitlane was just beyond, and crucially no-one was exiting the pitlane at that moment! There was immediate criticism after the race of Michael’s actions. One thing was true – he’d lost nothing of his dislike of being overtaken, and was still willing to push the envelope of what was right. Michael was given a ten-place grid penalty for the following race in Belgium, and although he initially defended his actions, he later apologised for his actions.

Mercedes AMG

Summary

Michael Schumacher was an incredible talent – there is no doubt about this. But he really used to push the envelope as to what was acceptable. He became the most successful driver ever, winning 91 races and seven world championships, but there will always be these incidents casting a shadow over his career.

Michael Schumacher – How the Rainmaster was born

Whilst Michael Schumacher had many incredible races, this is one of my favourites showing his incredible skill in changing conditions.

It was 1997 and it was the 12th race in the season which was taking place at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium.

Qualifying for the race had been dominated by Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) who secured pole position followed by Jean Alesi (Benetton Renault) in 2nd and Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 3rd on the grid.

In the morning warm-up the weather conditions were hot and dry and Schumacher only managed 15th place.

However, about 30 minutes before the start of the race, an unexpected twenty minute heavy downpour changed the race conditions dramatically.
During the time the cars were assembling on the grid, Schumacher took the opportunity of making some exploratory laps of the track by returning to the pits rather than the grid in both his race car and the spare car, which had been set up for intermediate weather conditions. Schumacher chose to race in the spare car.

Whilst going to take his place on the grid, Schumacher’s brother, Ralf, who had qualified 6th on the grid, spun and crashed his Jordan at Stavelot, resulting in him starting from the pit lane in the spare car.

For the first time in Formula 1 history, the race was started behind the safety car.

Of the front running cars, both the Williams drivers and Alesi started the race on full wet tyres whilst the others were on intermediates. The pack remained behind the safety car for the first three laps and the proper racing began on lap four. Villeneuve was still in front followed by Alesi and Schumacher.

At the start of lap five, Schumacher made a brave move past Alesi on the inside of the La Source hairpin and then overtook Villeneuve at the Rivage loop to take the lead. By the end of lap five Schumacher had built a lead of 5.8 seconds over Villeneuve. Bear in mind, in real terms it was only the second lap of actual racing. He then continued at a truly unbelievable pace, increasing this to 16.9 seconds by the end of lap six, which in real terms was only lap three. He was truly in a class of his own.

Fisichella, who was driving for Jordan and had also started on intermediate tyres, was now in 2nd place after Villeneuve made an unexpected pit stop.

Schumacher was in control of the race and continued to pull away, and by the end of lap 12 his lead had stretched to a full minute. Following a second pit stop, Villeneuve had dropped to 16th.

The track was drying by this stage in the race and pit stops were taking place for slicks to be fitted to the cars. Schumacher pitted on lap 14 for his slicks and after re-joining the race, he eased his pace and controlled the race. He eventually crossed the finish line some 27 seconds ahead of the 2nd place car of Fisichella, followed by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Williams-Renault.

If Schumacher had continued at his original pace, who knows how far ahead of everybody he would have been.

Having started from pole, Villeneuve finished his race in 5th, which meant that Schumacher extended his lead over Villeneuve in the Drivers’ Championship to 11 points with 5 races left in the season. Ferrari led Williams by 6 points in the Constructors’ Championship.

I truly believe that this was one of Michael Schumacher’s best drives and it was at this race that he gained the title ‘the Rainmaster’, which was to stay with him for the remainder of his racing career.

BK

Image courtesy of Mercedes Benz AMG 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.

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]

F3 Russia: Vips sees off Armstrong for final sprint race win

Red Bull junior and Hitech driver Juri Vips took victory in the final sprint race of the season in Sochi, seeing off a charge from yesterday’s feature race winner Marcus Armstrong.

Vips was slow away from his reverse grid pole position, which allowed second-placed starter Jake Hughes to challenge him into Turn 2. Behind them, Leo Pulcini went around the outside of Pedro Piquet to take third place while Armstrong got the jump on Robert Shwartzman and Niko Kari to move up to fifth.

Hughes kept up the pressure on Vips throughout the early laps and on lap 4 pulled alongside the Hitech into Turn 13. But Vips closed the door and Hughes dropped back from the lead to come under attack from Pulcini. The Italian driver set up a move on Hughes into Turn 5, but came off worse as the pair banged wheels and Pulcini was spun out of the points.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

Their incident allowed Piquet and Armstrong to both pass Hughes for second and third. Armstrong then took second from Piquet at the start of lap 7 only to be repassed by the Trident at Turn 13, but on the following lap Armstrong once again passed Piquet into Turn 2 and got far enough ahead to keep the position.

After breaking out of DRS range of Piquet on lap 10, Armstrong set about reeling in Vips with a series of fastest laps. At the start of lap 14 Vips had an advantage of 3.5 seconds over Armstrong, but this dropped to half by lap 17.

However, Armstrong’s charge faded in the final few laps as his tyres eventually ran out of grip. Vips was able to open the gap back up between them, having two seconds in hand when he crossed the line to take his third win of the season.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

After being demoted by Armstrong, Piquet had been running in a comfortable third for most of the race. But on lap 17 the Brazilian driver pulled over and retired with a mechanical problem, promoting newly-crowned F3 champion Shwartzman to third.

Hughes finished in fourth after his clash with Pulcini, and Kari was fifth for Trident. The battle for the last three points positions raged throughout the final laps with Richard Verschoor, Yuki Tsunoda and Max Fewtrell all changing positions. But in the end Hitech’s Yi Yifei, who was trailing at the back of the trio, took advantage of their fighting and managed to jump all three to take his first points of the season in sixth. Verschoor finished seventh, and Liam Lawson took eighth place after Tsunoda and Fewtrell both ran off the road with fading grip.

With second place and the fastest lap, Armstrong gained enough points from the sprint race to overhaul his Prema teammate Jehan Daruvala for runner-up in the final standings. Daruvala had been due to start from fourth on the grid, but was relegated to a pitlane start due to an engine problem before the formation lap. He then picked up a five-second penalty later in the race for leaving the track and gaining an advantage, and ultimately finished in 15th place.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

F3 Russia: Shwartzman clinches title as Armstrong wins feature race

Ferrari academy driver Robert Shwartzman sealed the 2019 Formula 3 title in the Sochi feature race, but was denied a home race victory by his Prema teammate Marcus Armstrong.

Shwartzman qualified for the race on pole, his first since the season opener in Barcelona, with his sole remaining title rival Jehan Daruvala alongside him in second. But it was Armstrong starting from third who got the best launch of the three Premas, as he passed Daruvala off the line before slipstreaming Shwartzman for the lead through Turn 3.

While Armstrong went off into the lead ahead of Shwartzman, Daruvala’s chances of taking the title to the final sprint race all but disappeared. Shwartzman’s points gap coming into Sochi meant that Daruvala had to win the feature race to have any chance of snatching away the title, but after being passed by Armstrong he then lost further places to Niko Kari, Christian Lundgaard and Leo Pulcini.

Daruvala managed to repass Lundgaard for fifth on lap two, but struggled to gain any more ground as Pulcini had too much pace ahead of him to present an opportunity.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

The early stages of the race were made tricky as light rain fell on some parts of the circuit, while the rest remained dry.

On lap 2 Bent Viscaal put his HWA into the wall at Turn 5, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car. Devlin DeFrancesco and Felipe Drugovich took advantage of the situation to gamble on a switch to wet tyres, although they were the only drivers to do so.

The VSC was withdrawn on lap 3, but on the following lap the full safety car was deployed when Leong Hon Chio, making his series debut with Jenzer, crashed out as well. The safety car remained out for two laps, during which the rain stopped and DeFrancesco and Drugovich both pitted again to switch back to slicks.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

Armstrong managed the restart on lap 6 well to pull away from the field, although Shwartzman behind was caught by Kari and demoted to third place. Meanwhile, further back in the top ten Juri Vips hit the rear of Lundgaard while trying to position himself for an overtake, spinning the ART out of the points and earning himself a 10-second time penalty.

Once clear of Shwartzman, Kari set the fastest lap to close up to the back of Armstrong. On lap 9, the Finnish driver then went around the outside of Armstrong into Turn 13 to take the lead.

Armstrong continued fighting back against Kari over the following lap, but on lap 11 Kari’s lead seemed to be secured when Armstrong went deep into Turn 2 trying to retake first and instead dropped to fourth behind Shwartzman and Pulcini.

However, Kari’s time in front didn’t last long, and on lap 13 he was passed by championship leader Shwartzman into Turn 2.

One lap later Armstrong got back into the podium positions after passing Pulcini for third, then managed to work his way back past Kari for second on lap 17.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

With four laps remaining Shwartzman looked to have enough of a buffer to keep ahead of Armstrong, and wrap up the championship with a home race victory. But Armstrong quickly settled into a rhythm and closed steadily up to the back of his teammate.

At the start of the final lap, Armstrong pulled to the inside of Turn 2 and took the lead away from Shwartzman, who offered little defence with the title on the line. Armstrong then crossed the line with just over a second in hand over Shwartzman, to take his third win of the season and his first in a feature race.

Kari held on to third for his second podium of the year, with Pulcini fourth ahead of Daruvala, Pedro Piquet and Jake Hughes, who also took two points for the fastest lap. Vips managed to finish third on the road ahead of Kari, but with his time penalty dropped to eighth and will start on reverse grid pole tomorrow morning.

Sauber Junior Team’s Raoul Hyman scored his first points of the season in ninth, and Richard Verschoor took the final point in tenth.

David Schumacher, making his F3 debut for Campos in place of the injured Alex Peroni, finished in P22 after being spun around by Keyvan Andres on lap 11.

Sauber’s Fabio Scherer retired on lap 9, while the team’s third driver Lirim Zendelli withdrew from the round ahead of the race.

Carl Bingham, LAT Images / FIA F3 Championship

Singapore GP preview: Mercedes favourites at Marina Bay

Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore, for the start of the final flyaway leg of 2019 under the lights at Marina Bay.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc head to Singapore on the crest of two wins on the bounce at Spa and Monza. But compared to those two high-speed circuits, Ferrari’s low downforce package won’t be anywhere near as effective on the tight Marina Bay Street Circuit.

As has been the case for most of the 2019 season, Mercedes is expected to be the team to beat this weekend. It was in Singapore last year, where Lewis Hamilton took pole position and the race win, that Mercedes finally seemed to understand what was needed to conquer one of its few “bogey” circuits. And judging by the fact Mercedes has won every street race since, there’s every reason for them to be confident about their chances on Sunday.

Paul Ripke / Mercedes AMG

However, Mercedes does have one shadow looming over them this weekend—engine reliability. Since introducing their Spec 3 power unit at Spa three weeks ago, Mercedes have seen uncharacteristic failures in the customer cars of Sergio Perez’s Racing Point and Robert Kubica’s Williams. So far the works team has had no blowouts of its own, but after two demanding power tracks and with Singapore’s reputation for testing cars to their limit, there’s no room for complacency.

The other threat to Mercedes this weekend comes in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Verstappen has run well in in Singapore in recent years, qualifying second in 2017 and 2018 and finishing runner-up to Hamilton last year.

With the Red Bull-Honda package improving with every race, it would be no surprise to see Verstappen duelling with Hamilton for his third win of the season.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

As always, the difficulty and unpredictability of Singapore will provide the midfield teams with plenty of opportunities to sneak away with big points hauls.

Renault took a double points finish at Marina Bay last year, but their RS19 has been much more at home on high speed and lower downforce tracks this year. Given their results from slower tracks like Monaco and Hungary, Renault will likely find themselves scrapping with or even behind the likes of McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso this weekend.

Haas will also be bracing themselves for another tough Grand Prix on Sunday. Although their prolonged dispute with former title sponsors Rich Energy has finally come to an end, their struggles with tyre degradation certainly have not. And in the heat of Singapore, there aren’t many worse problems to have.

However, Haas and Renault can both take some optimism from the fact that this is the Singapore Grand Prix. With tempers running high and the walls never far away, Singapore is the place where anything can happen.

Haas F1 Media