Fernando and Ferrari – the final few months?

It’s the beginning of 2013. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is about to start racing his new Ferrari in the earnest hope of winning a historic third title with the Italian marque. He had gone so close the previous year, pipped at the last race, machinery not quite good enough to beat Vettel in the Red Bull. But 2013 only needed a little bit more from the team and Alonso would deliver. Meanwhile, he was the happiest he’d ever been in a team – his comfort zone.

Fast forward to the midpoint of the season. Despite two wins in China and in Spain, we now have the situation in which Fernando is publicly rebuking his team in no uncertain language and Luca di Montezemolo, the big man, the heir to Enzo Ferrari himself, is reproaching Fernando for so doing. The rumours of a shock Red Bull move don’t seem quite so outlandish now. So how did it come to this?

The answer lies in Ferrari’s abject performance levels. Even acknowledging the two wins, the mid-season form guide has the Maranello concern languishing as fourth fastest, behind Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus, usually in that order. Unbelievable as it might have seemed only three or four races ago, McLaren and others can and do beat Ferraris sometimes. But what will have bothered Alonso is not the occasional lack of pace. It is rather what apparently is an endemic malaise, the rot setting in as the natural order of pace at the front settles down. And Ferrari are not only nowhere near the front; they also look like they don’t have any answers.

To give him his due, di Montezemolo has also been harsh with his team. He reportedly sent them knives (‘metaphorical up to a point’) with which to embark on renewed endeavours. He seems to notice there is a problem, one that has not been solved by the engineering brilliance of Pat Fry and so calls for a new face to be brought in in the shape of James Allinson. It is difficult to see this approach failing, as long as there is not a bigger problem and they are given enough time. Does Alonso have patience enough?

There are two ways of looking at Alonso’s behaviour this week. The first is that he is deploying a questionable motivational strategy. Having tried the carrot, goes the theory, here’s the stick. It is indeed a reasonable conclusion to arrive at, given that his softer approach so far this season has not yielded the desired result. The second way of seeing it is that it’s a sign he’s well and truly fed up with pushing himself to the limit and being surrounded by mediocrity in others. This is also understandable.

But the reality is that in all probability, Fernando Alonso wouldn’t want to go to Red Bull (ostensibly a British team) with Vettel (the young hotshoe) immovable in the other chair. He did that once, in 2007, and it didn’t go well. He would have to be pretty cheesed off with Ferrari for that to happen. It’s not impossible that drivers can fall out of love with Maranello just as hard as they fell for it – see Lauda, Mansell, Prost in anni passim. But as a motivational tool, the threat of losing Fernando as well as their jobs has got to be pretty effective for the team. Work harder. Find speed. Understand the tyres.

And Fernando will give them time, because he still loves them.

Hamilton wins in Hungary to put heat into title race

Lewis Hamilton today won for the fourth time at the Hungaroring in Hungary. In scorching conditions, the Englishman was the better of both second-placed Kimi Raikkonen and third-placed Sebastian Vettel, as well as the rest of the field.

The victory, the first of his Mercedes career, was classic Hamilton, characterised by blistering pace, incisive and dynamic overtaking and unremitting determination. His two moves on Mark Webber will stand out in the memory, partly because of their bravery and skill, but also in contrast to Vettel’s failure to get past his own demons in the shape of Jenson Button and Raikkonen at the end. It was that incision from the Englishman that would turn out to be decisive over the course of the race.

Perhaps equally remarkable was the ability of the Mercedes to be kind enough to its tyres for its driver to profit. The Pirellis have caused the team no end of trouble this season, and the outfit having missed the young driver test recently was thought to disadvantage them further. But even in the dry central European summer heat, the car did not look any harder on its rubber than anyone else. (Nico Rosberg will rue that his engine was not as resilient, however). Does this mean Mercedes have finally turned the corner and have a handle on the degradation? Sadly for them, I don’t think so – the characteristics of the circuit, as in Monaco, might have excused or obscured the car’s penchant for demolishing rubber. Answers will be evident in Spa and Monza, though.

Elsewhere, the action was exciting, unusually so for this track. Rough diamond Romain Grosjean was entertaining in the early stages, quick and threatening in more ways than one. Jenson Button had cause to reproach the Frenchman after his spatial awareness was again found wanting and Button was lucky to escape without damage. Grosjean then made the most beautiful move of the race on Felipe Massa, but would ultimately regret it – as he passed the Ferrari round the outside of turn four he had all his wheels off the track and was thus penalised.

Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso was yet again off the pace. His title chances are waning, despite his own superhuman efforts, because of the inability of his team to provide a car which can compete with the Red Bull, Mercedes, and Lotus machines. As such the title race is between Vettel, Raikkonen and at a push Hamilton, who may now be able to cut loose. That is wishful thinking, perhaps, on the part of those who wish to see a close title race, and Raikkonen’s challenge may be similarly flawed. If today is anything to go by, no one will be giving up, however.

COMING SOON: Half term report

Five things we learned from the German GP 2013

Yesterday’s German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was won by Sebastian Vettel, a victor for the first time on home soil. Here, forumula1.com’s Hugh Podmore analyses what fans can take away from the weekend.

1) Pit lane safety is far from absolute
Tyres were once again under the spotlight in Germany, but this time it was for the bouncing, out of control ones still on the wheel as opposed to the exploding ones. That Mark Webber’s errant right rear hit Paul Allen the cameraman was grimly inevitable but still unlucky; that it didn’t injure him more severely was lucky. Red Bull have been fined, and justifiably so; but it could have happened to anyone. With flesh and blood standing in the pitlane and cars effectively still racing, albeit slowly, accidents can and will happen. Again, it’s a cost-benefit evaluation. Are the powers that be prepared to institute dramatic new safety regulations at the possible cost of the spectacle? Or at least, that’s the question until someone gets seriously hurt, when it becomes a no-brainer.

2) Vettel and Red Bull still have the cards, but not a full hand
Vettel drove a measured, careful race yesterday, perhaps one of his best – this insofar as it was not a preordained result due to his overwhelming dominance, as it has been so often. The Lotuses might have reined him in if they had had different strategies or played the intra-team game a little more wisely or been luckier with traffic. And so the margin out front is just that – marginal. Strategies, tyres and circuits will play their part.

3) Lotus are not yet to be discounted
Lotus showed at the Nurburgring that their recent form has picked up. Whether it is the case that their car better suits a circuit with a mixture of slow and medium speed corners predominantly, or that they prefer Kevlar-belted Pirellis, or that they’ve found some speed with the odd upgrade, can only be hazarded at. What is guaranteed is that Raikkonen is committed, driven and extremely rapid. Grosjean seems to be showing somewhere near his best again, too, and was a victim of the team game this weekend.

4) Mercedes are not title challengers
Or so says Lewis Hamilton, who, bless him, is not a happy bunny at the moment in any way, shape or form. But he might be right. They haven’t sorted out their degradation issues, and the presence of those rearward-facing infrared cameras on their front wings proved it. Depending on temperatures they may be swift in Hungary because of the nature of the Hungaroring, but their pattern of fast-in-quali, tumbling during the race seems to be with us for the long term.

5) Ferrari…
…please come to the party. Yet again your man Alonso is outperforming every single person in the team, by a country mile. His talent really deserves more than what you’re giving him, and even the hope for developmental remedies to the lack of competitive pace seems somewhat forlorn. He will be at the front, or near it, because he is hands down the best driver out there in less-than-blistering machinery. Massa’s spin might have been his fault or it might not have, but it does seem to happen a lot. While you’re in the middle of changing personnel, take a look at Bianchi, Paul di Resta or even Jean Eric Vergne. That is all.

Tyregate VII – Silverstone 2013

Silverstone 2013 will be remembered for one thing – tyres. And for once it wasn’t degradation or graining that dominated the headlines, but exploding Pirellis, the blow outs sending ribbons of rubber skywards like some awful ballet. Hugh Podmore looks at that and other big stories from this weekend’s race.

1) Dangerous play
The jury is still out on what caused at least four cars to suffer massive blow outs during Sunday’s race. Some say it was the failure of the teams to agree unanimously to a change in the tyre’s core structure; others point to the stresses a series of fast right-handers put on the left rear tyre (which was usually the victim); pictures have even surfaced of a sharp kerb at the Northamptonshire track. Whatever the cause, it must be established, and quick. As many have already pointed out, nobody wants to see flying kilos of rubber on a race track. It is incredibly dangerous, and as has been noted, the greatest single danger to drivers comes from an object entering the cockpit. Talks of a boycott are not rash or unrealistic. Solutions? For Pirelli, go to a failsafe construction in the interim. For the FIA, let Pirelli test with all the teams so they have some actual information.

2) Fortune favours the brave – and Rosberg wins
A day like Sunday is often referred to as a lottery. To an extent it was – Lewis Hamilton was seriously unlucky, as was Sebastian Vettel for a different reason, as were Sergio Perez and Jean Eric Vergne. For Rosberg, knowing a blow out had happened to his team mate, in a car famed for its devouring of tyres, he had to be conservative and yet rapid. And this he did, particularly at the end when under serious pressure from Mark Webber. The Red Bull man too drove a wonderful race, recovering from an early clash with Grosjean to finish a superb second in front of what is effectively a second home crowd for him. Other gutsy performances in the face of adversity – Hamilton, Alonso, Sutil.

3) Raikkonen and Lotus set for divorce?
Tempers flared on Sunday between Lotus and their star employee, as the Finn felt he should have been pitted before the second Safety Car. That he wasn’t was a call made by the team which put Kimi under pressure at the end of the race and lost him a podium. On such fine margins are championships won and lost, although the team cannot really be blamed unduly. But will Raikkonen see this as further evidence that Lotus cannot step up to the plate to challenge regularly for podiums, wins and the title, like he indubitably can? And will it hasten his path to Red Bull?

4) Ricciardo shines to stake his claim – and Vettel may help
Daniel Ricciardo laid down a marker in Britain, by which Jev and even Raikkonen must measure themselves. That said, both the Toro Rosso chargers are yet to demonstrate the kind of consistency that would be required at the senior team. Raikkonen is supremely quick and in his second career has been the epitome of consistent performance. So is he Red Bull’s best bet? No, because of the Vettel effect. I’m not sure if there’s the appetite in that team for more internecine strife at any level, and certainly not from Sebastian’s side. The outcome of this little drama will be a very interesting insight into just how much influence Vettel has within the team.

5) Form guide for Germany
The form book is intriguingly balanced at the moment. To some extent Mercedes seem to have ironed out their issues, and in all likelihood could have had a one-two at Silverstone, but will that be true everywhere? The Nurburgring is a very different beast. Neutered and showy, it’s now a Mickey Mouse track of slow corners and quick squirts. Red Bull win, anyone?

The big stories ahead of Silverstone 2013

The F1 circus has arrived in Northamptonshire and the crowds are already in good voice and merry spirit for the 2013 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The teams and the drivers are gearing up for what is often labelled the best event on the calendar – despite the weather – and forumula1.com’s Hugh Podmore is looking at the big stories in the paddock this evening.

1) Mark Webber’s retirement
Today the Australian Red Bull Racing star announced his forthcoming retirement from F1, to pursue his love of endurance racing with Porsche. Webber’s career had its zenith at his current team, in whose cars he took all nine of his F1 wins, but he has driven for some of the biggest names in motorsport, including Jaguar and Williams. History will see him at the top of his game as the occasional thorn in Vettel’s side, perhaps unfairly. As his friend Fernando Alonso put it today, Webber has been nothing but a gentleman.

2) The concomitant vacancy at Red Bull
No one is talking about anything else. The big name in the frame is Kimi Raikkonen, but speculation abounds over the exact nature of his relationship with Red Bull as a brand. There is also the Red Bull tradition of keeping it in-house, and so Jean Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo are the obvious contenders. For my money neither of those guys is quite ready, and so Raikkonen on a two-year contract would seem to be a sensible option. But there’s Vettel. For all his protestations to the contrary, the boy will have a sizeable say in who partners him next season – and despite other protestations to the contrary, he would obviously prefer someone less of a threat.

3) Mercedes and their interesting tyres
The Grand Tribunal has ruled, as in some banana republic, that Mercedes should not be unduly punished for tyre testing in Barcelona. Well, yes. As soon as the boys from Stuttgart and their QCs produced evidence that the FIA had ratified and endorsed the test, the trial was null and void. Cock up from the FIA, there. Have Mercedes gained something? Probably, yes. Will it show at Silverstone? Maybe – it will be a good test to see how much progress they’ve made with these sensitive Pirellis.

4) Tips for the race…
Red Bull must be favourites, given they have the fastest car at the moment. With inclement weather Ferrari and Mercedes stand more of a chance. As Jenson Button says, a miracle will be needed for a McLaren win.

Talking points from Monaco 2013

Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix was won by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes. The German controlled the stop-start affair from beginning to end and was able to hold off the challenge of firstly his team mate and then the Red Bulls, converting Mercedes’ qualifying form into wins for the first time this season. Hugh Podmore looks at the talking points from the weekend.

1) Tyres…yawn
It seems no one can tweet, discuss or write about F1 any more without discussing tyres. It really is very dull. In essence, they are black objects that go on racing cars to facilitate contact with tarmac, but if you’d just touched down from space, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were as important as the cars or the drivers. Ok, they are playing a centre stage role in F1 this year, probably too big a performance for what should be bit part players. But it says volumes that Pirelli went to the lengths of hushing up their controversial Barcelona test with Mercedes because of politics – they knew it would never happen if they made it public. All the noisy chatter, you sense, is making Paul Hembery and his lads and ladettes a bit cheesed off. And they did such a good job last year. The teams and the fans should politely ask if Pirelli can possibly try to make the tyres just a little bit more resilient to discourage fifteen stops in a race and reward driving talent and racing, and then leave the rubber people alone.

2) That test
Tsk, Mercedes. If it weren’t enough that you have a Galactico team in terms of team principals, engineers and drivers, you now go sneaking about testing tyres when you’re not allowed to. (Though I don’t know how the other teams didn’t notice they hadn’t packed all their stuff up after Barcelona. “You going for a beer before the airport, Ross?” “Nah, just gonna…go over here…just…what still needs to be done? Ah…anyway, see you later.”) It isn’t really a surprise Red Bull and Ferrari are miffed, either. The FIA should give the Brackley outfit a fine big enough to have to phone Stuttgart, which will make them think a bit. But no more. Soon as you start docking points or suchlike, the season becomes a rancorous farce. Which is not what anyone wants or needs, particularly with the sport in its current politically precarious position.

3) Bad driving at Monaco
As much of an anachronism as a race round Monaco is, the streets of the Principality do tend to show you up if you’re not very good. Felipe Massa seems to have crashed a lot here, although the team are saying today that at least one of them wasn’t his fault. Max Chilton needs to look in his mirrors a bit more before moving back onto the racing line and Romain Grosjean is edging ever closer to the last chance saloon. Monaco is maybe the worst place to drive an F1 car badly, and it is great news that Maldonado, Ricciardo and Massa are safe and well this evening. In future, the sport might not be so lucky.

4) Good driving at Monaco
Sergio Perez is exciting, dynamic and fun to watch, if a little unrefined. In their opposition to his antics, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button are fulfilling the elder statesmen’s curious brief to decry young talent as foolhardiness. This betrays a concern that he might be good enough to beat them, which he may well be. But Perez did very little wrong on Sunday. If we’d had it Button’s way, it would have been a markedly duller race than it already was. Also spicing things up were Adrian Sutil, Jean Eric Vergne and Sebastian Vettel with his insistence on setting the fastest lap in the denouement of the race.

5) An off day for Alonso and Hamilton
Fernando Alonso did not have the best of weekends, and by his 2013 standards it was notably lacking. Some technical problems have been reported to have slowed him, but he still looked as somnolent as a TV viewer on Sunday afternoon. Maybe that’s because he knows not much can be gained at Monaco, but a lot can be lost. A lot was indeed lost by Lewis Hamilton, whose mystifyingly slow in-lap for his pitstop meant two places were surrendered to the Red Bulls. As his team mate waltzed to the win, Hamilton was left to reflect on what he can improve to stop Rosberg becoming the de facto number one at Mercedes. And – yep – we’re back to tyres. He’s got to adapt his driving style to be less hard on the rubber, has Lewis – easier said than done, even for a driver of his calibre.

6) Tempestuous times ahead?
Much worried conjecture this weekend about the financial future of the sport. A new Concorde Agreement yet to be signed, a power vacuum at the top if Bernie is ‘otherwise engaged’, an understandable jitteriness from investors and sponsors. And the news confirming the rumours in this month’s F1 Racing magazine that at least one well-known team (and quite feasibly others) have an exceedingly precarious balance sheet. Difficult to see this being resolved easily, frankly. Big money is still talking and with no FOTA prefect in town the bigger kids are dominating the playground. The resurrection of the RRA would be a start, but who of the big four (Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes) will take the lead?

Reflections on the Spanish GP 2013

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso vanquished the opposition at the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya yesterday. Hugh Podmore looks at the biggest stories from the weekend’s action.

Alonso in charge and with momentum
Fernando Alonso has looked like a man possessed with one ambition this season – to win the world title. Whether it was winning commandingly in China, charging back to eighth in Bahrain after his DRS failed twice, or even carrying on death-or-glory-style with no front wing in Malaysia, he looks almost psychotic in his pursuit of the championship this season. But Spain is out front in terms of performances – that wondrous move round the outside of Raikkonen and Vettel at turn 3 on the first lap. He found grip where no one else would dare look, and thereafter had speed in his pocket to cover off the chasing Raikkonen. If he can continue in this vein he will be fearsomely hard to beat.

Ferrari and Lotus kinder to tyres than the others
Tyres are the story of this season so far, even more so than in 2012. Catalunya’s periods of soporificity has again opened Pirelli to charges that they have gone too far, and that strategy and preserving rubber has become the name of the game in place of racing one’s rivals. Whatever the truth of the matter, these are the circumstances; and it’s who plays the cards they are dealt best that counts. At the moment, that’s Ferrari and Lotus, with even the famous Red Bull seeming less happy.

As for Mercedes…
Has there ever been a team with such a wide discrepancy between qualifying pace and race pace? Hopes had been high that they had solved their Sunday degradation and graining issues, but what transpired could not have been further away from that. Lewis Hamilton, who these days does a creditable imitation of a man who has suddenly been put in a formula he is totally unfamiliar with, is worst affected. His style rinses tyres at the best of times, but seeing him battle with lowly Williamses is the nadir. He had always had his eyes on 2014, though…

Punching above their weight
…were Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Paul di Resta and Jules Bianchi. Rosberg did very well in a car that, as has been noted, cannot be easy to drive. Ricciardo was outstanding and although Vergne has now retired twice in two races, the Australian is beginning to get his nose in front. There’s pace in that Force India and a little more dynamism from di Resta would have seen a big haul of points. Bianchi does a fantastic job at the back of the grid. Evidence? His hanging on manfully to the race leader (granted, after having been lapped) Fernando Alonso, when no one else could. Watch that man – Ferrari seat next year?