Rosberg and Hamilton – the battle will rage all the way

Lewis Hamilton’s win in the British Grand Prix last weekend was the definitive statement he needed to bring his title challenge back to life. Of course, it helped that Nico Rosberg was the victim of mechanical trouble and did not score at all. The gap that now separates the only two realistic title challengers is a mere four points. But has the tide turned in favour of the Englishman as he profits from new confidence? Or will the German be able to contain his maverick team mate?

The debate was in microcosm last time out at Silverstone. Rosberg was serene after qualifying, safe in the knowledge that he had kept going as the third sector dried and had found the time he needed to topple his rival there. His glee was the polar opposite of Hamilton’s ire – but where Rosberg could say fortune and savvy had won him the day, Hamilton could only blame himself for his lowly starting position.

Fast forward to race day and Hamilton rapidly showed that he was the only credible pretender and threat to race leader Rosberg. They swept round, Hamilton finding more pace on the harder compound. Then Rosberg slowed. The argument still rages as to whether Hamilton would have caught and passed Rosberg if the latter had not retired. It’s hard not to think he would have done – spurred on by a wonderful crowd, a sense of duty and a fury fired by his own mistake in qualifying.

However. In that scenario, Rosberg licks his wounds, doffs his hat and comes second – scoring enough points to maintain a healthy lead in the standings. It wasn’t to be and that was none of the fault of the German. Would he have conceded purely as a tactical measure? Post-Austria, there’s a new reading of Rosberg – that he is simply the master technician. In an Alonso-like fashion, he has the ability to read races, set-ups, tracks, rivals, tyres, fuel consumption, etc etc ad infinitum. In this he is superior to, or at the very least unlike, Lewis.

But then there’s the speed, the sheer dynamism and the sense of destiny that wafts around Lewis Hamilton. You simply can’t write him off, because for all the flaws (and there are a few), that speed seems to inexplicably compensate. It allows him to royally cock up qualifying and yet be in distinct contention for the race win. It allows him to suffer slower pitstops (we’ve noticed, Merc) and be on terms. It allows him to have suffered the lion’s share of the reliability issues and still be nearly on a par with Rosberg.

So who will triumph? I have no idea. I suspect it will become clearer as the season progresses; that a trend will emerge that will preface the eventual victory of one over the other. But then you could just see the other coming back…F1 really needed this kind of battle this season, and we are going to have it just about all the way. What a great prospect.

Felipe Crasha on road to redemption at Red Bull Ring today?

Felipe Massa has qualified on pole for today’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Austria today. It represents the hitherto high point of a season in which his Williams team has promised much but delivered less. Will Massa bring home the bacon this afternoon? Or will he succumb to the pressure and choke? Hugh Podmore looks at the case…

Felipe Massa is an enigma of a driver. In 2008 he was at the peak of his powers, having learned from the great Schumacher, having taken the fight to Kimi Raikkonen and emerged on top. Then came his accident at the Hungaroring in 2009 and popular wisdom has it that he hasn’t been the same driver since. Maybe not. But he has shone, and still has that ability to shine. It is no accident that he has comfortably had the measure of highly-rated Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas this season – nor is it serendipity that he found himself in potentially a race-winning position in Canada last time out.

Ah yes, thought we’d have to get to that sooner or later – the elephant in the room. Canada 2014. Massa was very well-placed to win the race when the two Mercedes began to falter. A number of Williams insiders are reported to believe it was virtually his to lose, and lose it he did. His crash into Perez at the end, therefore, was a kind of frustrated lashing-out at the world because of his own failings with tyre management, opportunity-taking and incisive, race-winning speed when it mattered the most.

And not only that; it was bloody dangerous too. And it was Massa’s fault. Why? Because the following car always has much more responsibility for avoiding an accident, because he can see much more than can the leading driver. There was categorically no need for Massa to be that close to Perez, and even though the Mexican may have moved slightly in the braking zone, it would not have been enough to cause an accident if Massa had been positioned responsibly.

So crashes apart, will Massa triumph today? While has not shown consistently the kind of mental resilience required at the top level in this sport, we can’t exclude the possibility of a one-off barnstormer, the like of which he has produced before. I would bet against it though…

Is this how you see the world, Lewis?

Last weekend I finished second to Nico Rosberg in the Monaco Grand Prix. The reason I finished second is because it was Monaco and you can’t overtake. That and something in my eye. But mainly because I was second on the grid. Nico “made a mistake” at Mirabeau that had the effect of ruining my final lap, that would have been pole. Then, I would have won the race.

I think he probably planned it. He did it well. He executed it well. At least, better-executed than Michael Schumacher at Rascasse in 2006. As I said to the TV people, I saw something on the replay that made me smile. I’m not letting on what it is, but if you watch it, you’ll know.

So there I was, in second. The only other way I could have won was for the team to pit me first. But I knew they wouldn’t. I told them that, so they know I know what they’re doing. People will say it’s their policy, but I think they should give me precedence as I was championship leader. Not that they would because they’re in Nico’s pockets.

It’s not the first time they’ve done something like that, to undermine me. They told me not to use my higher engine settings at Barcelona which would have gifted him the race. The only way I could defend was to use the maximum the car could give. I am better than Nico, but I can’t fight the whole team. That’s what I’ve been doing. That’s why he’s been faster in Bahrain, in Barcelona. They might be even putting stuff on his car that they’ve left off mine. I don’t know. I don’t trust anyone.

I don’t trust anyone because I can always see allegiances and fakery. I don’t trust any drivers because they all want to win just as much as I do. I trusted some people at McLaren. But they couldn’t build me a decent car.

I won’t let them get me down, though, all of them. I will fight back. I will use everything I have. I am angry, but I’m calm. I’m waiting for the next race in Canada. I will win that. Still I rise.

Intra-team rivalry makes for spicy season

Up to about half distance, the Spanish Grand Prix of last weekend, at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, Spain, had threatened for quite some time to turn into full-blown protracted torture. This was because absolutely nothing was happening. The Mercedes pair were long gone up front, Hamilton having exerted his natural dominance over Rosberg; nobody was drastically out of position except for Seb Vettel, and he didn’t look motivated to charge through the field (why would you?); even the noise of the cars were more akin to a flatulent pooch than the thrilling whine of old. F1 2014 has flirted with boredom before, we thought – and now Catalunya has done its usual somnolent job.

But suddenly, it came alive. Hamilton started to sound irascible as his oversteer began to destabilise the car and his strategy looked vulnerable. Alonso, despite being behind Raikkonen, got called in to the pits first ahead of his team mate. Vettel decided that he was not going to tootle round looking at the sights, and made hay with the improved performance of his Red Bull. His team mate Daniel Ricciardo was making short work of Valtteri Bottas. Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean was hanging on like grim death to each position he descended in an heroic and ultimately successful attempt to remain in the points.

What made this exciting? Well, it wasn’t the racing itself, to be honest, for there is precious little of that to be had at this most neutered of tracks. It wasn’t the DRS or the ERS, or the lowered noses, or the combative brilliance of many (hat tip exception: S. Vettel). No, it was the frisson of conflict; the piquancy of battle; the delectability of intra-team strife.

At the front, Nico Rosberg reeled Lewis Hamilton in with a cold inevitability whose chill Hamilton would have distinctly noted even in his warm cockpit. It spoke of the latent speed that the German can conjure from that most nimble of machines, and of his arguably superior tyre management skills. Hamilton was eventually and commendably to hold him off, but boy, Rosberg isn’t done yet.

Behind them, Ricciardo finished another race ahead of Vettel. Granted, the German was phenomenal at driving through the field from 15th to fourth place at the end, but it goes down as another win for the Australian. Vettel will be stung.

Behind them, Alonso did a good job, as ever – but Kimi will feel that that is all he did. The Finn also will be silently (for that is how Kimi does) questioning why on earth Ferrari rejigged their normal modus operandi and allowed Alonso to come in first ahead of him. Alonso stopped three times, which turned out to be the faster strategy – and passed his team mate for good measure, to rub salt in the wound.

This, and other similar battles up and down the grid, are what will make this season spicy. Keep watching.

Senna remembered – the greatest of the modern era

Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna da Silva was killed at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, in Imola, Italy. The images from the tragic day are burned strongly into the memory – the veering off of his car as seen from Michael Schumacher’s onboard camera; the force with which he hit the wall; the slight movement of his head that seemed to give us hope but actually denoted a serious brain injury; the slightly listing wreckage of the Williams FW16 seen from behind the wall at Tamburello. Twenty years on, they live in the mind of every F1 fan still.

So much has been written and said about Ayrton Senna. He was supremely gifted, a force of nature; a man possessed of messianic self-assurance that frequently justified itself on the racetrack. He was also flawed – that self-belief bordered on the insane, and Senna was accused of endangering others on occasion. But his personal charisma, his magnetism, radiated even through a television set. It continues to do so today, through online videos, through the eponymous film, and above all through the mystique that surrounds him in stories. It may be that we as humans have a need to believe in preternatural qualities, but Senna can still provide us with a very good excuse to dream.

So how good was he on track? Late-nineties and early noughties revisionism suggested the level of admiration, beatification even, in the wake of his death was excessive. As Schumacher swept all before him in the dominant Ferraris of that era, the last we had seen of Senna was a man frantically trying to keep an unwieldy car ahead of his young pretender German rival. Perhaps it was even Schumacher’s speed which prompted the mistake some believe Senna made at his final corner. Indeed, Senna could not countenance the idea that Schumacher was quicker – he had alleged that the Benetton team were using illegal traction control. So we thought that had he lived, Senna would have lost out to Schumacher in 1994 and the cyclical nature of the sport would be clear once again. Schumacher even topped Senna in some ‘all-time greatest’ lists.

But then. What has happened since has given us cause to re-evaluate Schumacher. We now know, as we didn’t in the Schumacher-Byrne-Brawn era, that he had preferential tyre data at the time. We also share a consensus that his contemporaries of the time – Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Coulthard – don’t really merit inclusion in a class with Schumacher. So with a vastly superior car and no rivals to speak of, Schumacher won a lot. How many times did Senna have a vastly superior car and no rivals? Never at the same time…

So you turn to today. We have three contemporary drivers I believe will rank alongside or at least up there with the truly illustrious names in the sport – Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment: Hamilton makes mistakes often. Vettel appears to crack under pressure. Alonso has failed to galvanise a team.

Compare them to Senna. He and Hamilton share teams and one-lap speed; he and Vettel share ability to dominate a race and brilliance in down-the-grid teams; he and Alonso share spirit and guts. None of them gives us Senna’s other-worldliness, this sense of destiny. This magic. And so the ineluctable conclusion is that Senna was and is the greatest; that mere statistics and flaws cannot sully him now. Is it his death that makes him that? Perhaps. But it is his life that gives us the evidence.

What does Fernando Alonso need to do to get a break?

Yesterday’s Chinese Grand Prix was won in casual fashion by Lewis Hamilton, followed home by his team mate Nico Rosberg, who enjoyed a more trying afternoon. If you hadn’t seen the race, who would you guess was third? Daniel Ricciardo perhaps, who has mastered the idiosyncrasies of this year’s cars rather better than his illustrious team mate? Or maybe that Vettel, reasserting his in-team power after the ignominy of being told to let Ricciardo past in Bahrain? (Ah, the irony – he was told to do it again in China!) Possibly you’d plump for a Force India, a Williams, or a resurgent McLaren? Nope. It was Fernando Alonso. He who outperforms everyone around him. What does he need to do to get a break in this sport?

The Chinese Grand Prix 2014 was a typical Fernando Alonso race. Qualifying near enough the front to make sure the pole sitters are within reach; making a characteristically clean start; being assailed by someone or something (in this case it was a hapless Felipe Massa caught in a closing wedge); driving one’s guts out; pitting early to maximise the bonus of the undercut; driving one’s guts out; pitting early again to maximise the undercut once again; driving one’s guts out; surviving a late charge from a young gun on fresher tyres and in invariably superior machinery; trouncing his team mate, but watching on the podium as other drivers, in invariably superior machinery, take the glory.

The bicampeonato of Alonso came in 2005 and 2006, and he resembles Arsenal FC insofar as he has failed to win a meaningful trophy since. He was a great driver then, to break Schumacher’s stranglehold on the sport. But character-building years at McLaren in 2007 and at Renault in 2008-9 moulded him into arguably the finest racer of his generation – a hard-charging speed demon who yet had a Prost-like ability to visualise the context of the race, the strategy, what would be required when. As such his attempts to wrest the championship from the grasp of Vettel were as heroic as they were ultimately futile, particularly in 2010 and 2012, years when many thought on the basis of individual performance he was the more deserving winner. 2013 saw Ferrari slide down the performance scale and Fernando began to take on the look of a man whose mantra was ‘mañana, mañana…’

Now (and it must be soul-destroying) the Red Bull hegemony at the front of the grid, that second-per-lap ability to pull away in the hands of Vettel, that lazy Sunday afternoon breeze to the chequered flag every weekend – has been replaced by a near-identical one in the form of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. The King is dead! Long live the King! Except: the Prince Regent Alonso, the other of the triumvirate whose names will ring down the history of the sport, has been usurped yet again. At the age of 32 he will not have many more chances.

Ferrari can and will change, though will it be in time for our hero? President Luca di Montezemolo brought the long-threatened knives out after Bahrain, the indignity of which he was there to watch first-hand, and Stefano Domenicali was ousted. Jumped or pushed, we wonder – and we suspect that in the Ferrari family one is encouraged to jump by a man with his hand on your back. Marco Matiacci is the new team principal, the manager of the Gestione Sportiva (the Sporting Division) and the reaction around the press rooms and the paddock appears to be one of bafflement. Matiacci was head of Ferrari North America, effectively a massive car dealership and a job whose only transferable skill to F1 seems to be that of fluent English. Di Montezemolo has defended himself – and Alonso knows better than to criticise the marque after an ill-advised comment last season.

So what does the future look like for the Asturian? His contract with Ferrari runs til 2016, and given the nature of the relationships Ferrari drivers tend to have with the Scuderia, I’d say it’s unlikely he will move. If he were to do so, McLaren have been touted as a possible destination, but Ron Dennis would not only have to patch up an apparently irrevocably damaged personal relationship but also provide assurances that his Woking team will be competitive next season with Honda – a big promise to make in the current position. Mercedes is tremendously unlikely unless Hamilton and Rosberg start taking each other out on a regular basis. Red Bull don’t tend to take big names when their in-house programme makes them themselves. So he doesn’t really have many options as it stands.

Is it doom and gloom, then, for Fernando? Is it the case that he will always have won at least half the number of championships as Vettel? Is it the case that Hamilton will be on statistical terms with him? Will he be the third in that triumvirate? No. Statistics will only ever tell half the story. Those of us who have witnessed Fernando Alonso driving, by the track and on the television, will always be able to tell the story. The story that he was superhuman in a racing car; that he performed beyond the limits of his machinery; that he almost never had the best car and yet we always mention his name.

Five things we learned from the Bahrain GP 2014

Last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix was a cracker, won by Lewis Hamilton after a race-long battle with his team mate Nico Rosberg. But what can F1 fans take from the desert as the dust settles after the first skirmish of the season?

1) The sport ain’t in that bad a shape
Naysayers, quieten yourselves. This column, in the company of some illustrious figures, has been critical of the spectacle of F1 2014. In tandem with the lack of piercing whine, some had felt that the racing hadn’t been exactly riveting. Well, Bahrain shut us up. It was an old-fashioned thriller that had it all – inter-team battling, overtaking, skill and daring and even Esteban Gutierrez going on his head. Which is worth the Sky subscription fee alone, right?

2) Hamilton is only a nose ahead of Rosberg now
Unlike Malaysia, where he was a country mile down the road. There have been reports surfacing in the last few days that Rosberg had studied a dossier on Hamilton in the wake of Sepang, in order to better comprehend the trouncing that the Briton meted out to him there. And comprehend he did. Much has been made of Rosberg’s intellect and it was in evidence as his strategy execution was arguably superior in Bahrain. What was given less credit and exposure was his forbearance in the heat of battle in not taking Hamilton out. It’s probably fair to say bringing the cars home intact – as in Paddy Lowe’s exhortation – was Rosberg’s greatest achievement in Sakhir, especially when you consider Hamilton was driving defensively to the outer limit of propriety. Will there be further fireworks? You bet. The parallels with Prost and Senna are there to be tweeted.

3) Ferrari – and McLaren – have work to do
Luca di Montezemolo chose the wrong race to come to if he was looking for a Ferrari resurgence. He and his old mucker Ron Dennis may be taking a more hands-on role in the day-to-day management of their respective squads if things don’t improve quickly. In Ferrari’s case, what’s the point of having two roosters if you can’t build them a functional henhouse? (Stretching the metaphor somewhat, but there you are). Over at McLaren, it’s probably fair to argue that initial confidence in the car resulted in a lack of a catalyst for rapid development, and as such they’ve been left in the pecking order behind Mercedes, Red Bull, Force India and Williams.

4) New (and some old) talent needs recognising
Daniel Ricciardo has been a revelation, not only taking the battle to Vettel but looking every inch his equal. A number of us, Vettel included, didn’t see that coming. Also due hat-tips are Sergio Perez, who beat Nico Hulkenberg fair and square (though we’ll see if that is the case only on tracks Checo likes); Felipe Massa, who’s no longer ham-strung by either Ferrari nor his new team and is showing his speed of old; Daniil Kvyat, who seems to be mature beyond his baby face; and Kamui Kobayashi is trying his damnedest, as ever.

5) Uncertainty over governance does not breed confidence
Another weekend, another rumour about the future governance of the sport – this time that the teams are considering mounting a bid to buy the commercial rights to the sport. If that were true, I can’t see how it would have made sense to disband FOTA, because that surely would be a good vehicle for any such effort. Anyway, all the uncertainty over engine size, engine noise, fan attendance, double points and Bernie’s ongoing legal wrangles make for both an uneasy paddock and restive viewing billions. Ecclestone’s thinly-veiled denial that he is trying to wrest back control of the sport doesn’t help matters. It might be that the teams’ bid wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, but for most people, the history and the racing are the most important things. And if everyone in the F1 circus could remember that, please…?