Rosberg hints at mid-field pace

Nico Rosberg has hinted that Williams could find themselves competing in the mid field come Melbourne despite impressive form from the team in pre-season testing.

In a slightly ambiguous comment following the third day of testing at Barcelona today Rosberg said that there would be little to choose between the competitors in the mid-field.

“It s going to be close in the middle of the field so we ll have to see how we do,” he said after Williams concluded their pre-season testing at Barcelona today.

“I m now looking forward to getting to Australia. It should be a lot of fun,” he added.

As Forumula1.com reported earlier in the week, Williams s 2008 challenger, the FW30 has been showing promising signs in testing with some talk of the team being third quickest behind Mclaren and Ferrari.

Both Rosberg and his Japanese team-mate Kazuki Nakajima have been consistently at the top end of the time-sheets making Rosberg s hint that the team would find themselves in the mid-field even more unusual.

Indeed, the 22-year-old went third quickest on the third day of testing at Barcelona today suggesting that he may be talking down the team s actual potential ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in early March.

Alonso: driving without traction control “not easy”

Fernando Alonso has admitted that the arrival of Standard Electronic Control Units and the ban on driver aids will make it difficult to negotiate corners without wheelspin.

The double world champion said that it will become “almost impossible” to prevent wheelspin as a result of the loss of traction control.

“It becomes almost impossible to stop it even if you back off the throttle,” the Spaniard told Formula1.com.

“When you have wheelspin, the revs rise and you have more torque, which makes the wheels spin even more.

“To deliver a good lap time, it is essential to avoid wheelspin through all parts of the corner, and that is not easy.”

The Renault driver also expects his competitors to make radical changes to their racing style as a result of the regulation changes.

“You have to change your driving style quite dramatically,” he said.

“Last year we used to go straight to full throttle, but now we need to be gentler and feather the throttle.”

Another upshot of SECUs is the loss of engine breaking systems (EBS). Teams will no longer be able to transmit brief bursts of power (throttle blipping ) to the car to prevent the rear wheels locking up under braking.

This will put a greater emphasis on car setup according to Alonso.

“Without EBS you do suffer with locking of the rear tyres because stopping a car travelling at 300 km/h is not easy,” he said.

“You have to adapt the set-up of the car to compensate for the loss of all the systems.”

Williams poised to bounce back in 2008

A year ago Frank Williams was told his business model was dead. His Williams F1 team founded on the back of a spare-parts business and moulded with grit and determination into a championship winning machine had just suffered one of its worst seasons in motor-racing and doubt was being cast over the future of independent constructors in F1.

Now, after a radical restructuring within the team, a strong finish to the 2007 season and some impressive showings from the FW30 in winter testing all the signs are that Williams are poised to bounce back in 2008 despite spending only a third of the dollars that the manufactures have at their disposal.

Williams last won a world championship in 1997 and have not won a grand prix since 2004. The dream ticket partnership between BMW and Williams never really materialised and since then progress has taken a downward turn. 2006 was a particular low with a string of reliability problems and only 11 constructors points.

Patrick Head, Williams s director of engineering, blames a combination of problems for the team s dip in performance.

“As is normal in these cases, a number of factors all came together: some of it was just not good design; some of it was not good enough fault-correction; and some of it was driven by internal systems that were faltering,” he told F1 Racing this month.

But last year marked something of a turning point for the Grove-based outfit. In the second half of the season Nico Rosberg was consistently qualifying and finishing in the top 8 and the team hauled in 33 points in total, enough for 4th in the constructors championship.

A key factor in this turnaround has been extensive restructuring within the team according to Head. Among the more high profile changes was the decision to off-load Sam Michael, the team s technical director, with some of the responsibility for racing operations. Rod Nelson, who joined the team as senior operations engineer from Renault, took over the running of the team at race weekends enabling Michael to focus on technical development.

“We now have other people in senior positions as well,” Head said.

“We restructured the company internally to make sure there was a good authority flow, a structure down through the company. We re quite different internally now in terms of structure and much healthier for it.”

Citing the problem of younger staff failing to pick up the methods and procedures of retiring staff, many of whom had been influential in Williams glory years, Head added: “Jobs are much better documented, and much more process is control is in place.”

Things finished on a high at Brazil when Nico Rosberg powered his way to a career best fourth place after starting tenth. The drive was understandably overshadowed by Raikkonen s championship winning victory and later the controversy over fuel irregularities but the damage had been done; Williams had got the jump on rivals BMW and had significantly closed the performance gap to Ferrari and Mclaren.

Encouragingly for the team, this momentum has been carried into testing where both Rosberg and Nakajima have been lighting up the timesheets. Rosberg split the Ferrari s and Mclaren s at Valencia while on long runs and Nakajima has not been far behind him. The FW30 also seems to be benefiting from some innovative design modifications, according to Autosport. Right up there on the cheeky list is a modified nose cone featuring new fins. Through clever design and positioning of the mandatory TV camera, the nose fins subtly extend the width of the aero component without breaking the regulations.

The team have also reportedly unlocked some speed by widening the top of their central rear diffuser. The modification is an adaptation to an already successful design based on Ferrari s model of separate side channels accompanying one central diffuser to maximise airflow.

Despite these improvements Technical Director Sam Michael downplayed talk of the team mounting a challenge on Mclaren and Ferrari.

“We ve got a good reference but we re definitely not quick enough to go and win Grand Prix, which is what our target is,” Michael told Autosport.

“But the car s a good step on from where it was last year, and we finished the season relatively strongly. If we can keep going in that direction then that is the most important thing,” he added.

That there is talk of Williams challenging for race wins in the first place illustrates just much progress the team have made in last season.

Should 2008 indeed be a breakthrough year for Williams, then that can only be a good thing for F1. The sport s very survival is dependent in my view on the participation of independent constructors like Williams and not, as Max Mosley has reportedly said to Frank Williams, a solely “manufacture and B-team” environment.

There has been some talk of Williams becoming a Toyota B-Team. A more likely scenario I think is that Toyota, having reviewed their dismal performance as a manufacture, will pull out of Formula One and seriously consider an engine partnership with Williams.

Williams are very much at the mercy of their own performance in 2008 which is why a return to the sharp end of the grid could not be more timely.

Joshua Hill to follow in fathers footsteps?

Joshua Hill, son of world champion Damon Hill and grandson of the late Graham Hill, had his first test in a Ginetta Junior racing car this weekend.

The 17-year-old took part in a low key test session at the Snetterton race track in Norfolk, according to dailysportscar.com. The teenager tried out a Ginetta G20, a Ford Zetec powered sports car specifically built for the Playstation Ginetta Junior Championship for young drivers.

It is not yet known if Hill will participate in the Junior Championship but he completed the test successfully and is reported to have done well.

Damon Hill, who won the 1996 world championship with Williams Renault, has been open about his son s desire to follow in his footsteps. But the Englishman has concerns about exposing his son to the dangers of motorsport.

“We all love to protect our children from the risks in life but then we also deprive them of the enjoyment,” he told The Times.

“I will reluctantly throw myself at the mercy of the fates or whatever is out there,” he added.

Father and son took to the racetrack in 2006 when Damon Hill drove Joshua around the Silverstone race circuit in a GP Masters two-seater. And earlier this year they competed against each other in the Club 100 Winter Karting Series, a warm-up for the Club 100 National Championships which get underway in March.

Joshua finished second in the series, narrowly losing out to the eventual winner Chris Powell and Damon came fourth overall.

Analysis: The day F1 went tabloid

The incidents at Barcelona a fortnight ago in which a small minority of Spanish fans hurled racist abuse at Lewis Hamilton caused a media backlash in the British press and led the FIA to introduce a new global anti-racism campaign. Christopher Hayes talks to Lino Uruñuela, webmaster of the Spanish Fan Site Fernando-Alonso.org, and assesses the reaction to events in Spain.

I realise the irony of criticising the media frenzy surrounding the race row by producing yet another article on the subject; but there are still some serious questions to be asked about the events in Barcelona.

Background: The Day F1 went tabloid

I will not revisit all the events during testing (see Forumula1.com s own report here for more information). Suffice to say that during the three three-day test session at the Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona, Lewis Hamilton was booed and had racist abuse hurled at him by a small minority of fans. The abuse was at its worst on the second day when the chanting was instigated by a small group of Spanish fans wearing, dark curly wigs, black make-up and T-shirts with the words “Hamilton s family” written on them.

It did not take long before local reports of racist abuse were being seized upon by the big news agencies. Motorsport journalists, who up until this moment had had their revenue making potential constrained by the unnewsworthiness of winter testing, leapt on the chance to get F1 onto the mainstream news agenda and a media barrage ensued. Chief suspect was the Sun which had front page spreads devoted to the headlines “A LOAD OF PRIX” and “Vile Taunts at Circuit”.

Did the British Press go too far?

I think most people would agree that racism is unacceptable, period. I broadly support the criticism levelled at those involved, though in contrast to some commentators taking the this was blown out of proportion angle, I think that the FIA was absolutely right to publicly condemn the actions of those involved. My concern is that the British press did little to separate out the small minority of people involved in racist abuse from a rowdy Spanish crowd involved in booing, jeering and in my view, entirely healthy non-racist abuse.

Talking to Forumula1.com, Lino Uruñuela, webmaster of the Spanish fan site www.Fernando-Alonso.org, explained that the vast majority of Spanish F1 fans were outraged at the events at Barcelona and welcomed the level of criticism. This is an important point which was lost in the British news reports.

“Regarding racist abuse in sport events, there are no excessive critics, these people deserve them all. We should not allow, let alone ignore these facts and this reality. It is not only a problem in F1, these kinds of things happen in football, basketball and so on,” says Uruñuela.

What interested me however was not so much the reporting of the racist attacks themselves, but the reasons the British press gave for them. In almost every single news report which covered the story, the same lines were used again and again, almost word for word: “Spanish fans believe that Fernando Alonso was treated unfairly by Mclaren and blame Lewis Hamilton for Alonso s failure to win the world championship”.

These are bold statements to make about a population (they also highlight the extent modern news is reduplicated with minimal effort for financial gain). I spoke to Uruñuela and some other Spanish F1 fans to explore these claims in more detail and get a better feel for how Hamilton and McLaren are viewed in Spain.

“Hamilton acted as a spoilt rich kid”

The aversion towards Mclaren and Hamilton runs strikingly deep in many sectors of the Spanish F1 community. When I asked Uruñuela about whether or not he felt McLaren had treated Alonso unfairly in 2007 he responded, in almost disbelief, that I should have thought otherwise: “That s clear, don t you believe so?”.

“Hamilton took advance thanks to several team decisions,” he added.

“He also benefited from the moral support that Alonso didn t receive. There were occasions in which Dennis gave his public support to Hamilton. It is very difficult for a driver to bear this kind of situation.”

On Hamilton s role in the row over team-orders in 2007, Uruñuela was even more scathing: “Hamilton acted as a spoilt rich kid, and he didn’t show any respect for his team mate. It is a logical thing this feeling about Hamilton, since everybody could see that Alonso was very respectful with the whole team (including Hamilton), and afterwards he was treated in such a way.”

But based on observation of discussion within Spanish F1 forums, it is not true to say that all Spaniards hold this view, or that this is by any means the majority opinion.

Much was made of the slogan “Hamilton s Family” emblazoned on the T-Shirts of the fans wearing wigs and black make-up. Key to understanding the bigger picture in my view is also what was written on the back of their T-Shirts: “Alonso s number one fan”. There are thousands of fans who are simply devoted to their man Alonso; he quite literally put F1 on the map in Spain. The resentment towards Hamilton is an inevitable upshot of this alliance. It is a sporting fact of life. Just as Arsenal would not expect to be welcomed with open arms at White Hart Lane, so, Hamilton should not expect to be given an easy ride in Spain.

The row over team favouritism in 2007 no doubt adds fuel to the anti-Hamilton fire in Spain, but even if there had been no such controversy, the hatred towards Hamilton would continue to exist by simple virtue of the way he upstaged Alonso on several occasions. How many of us have jeered and sledged other drivers that threaten those we support, in the comfort of our own living room?

The press on both sides of the Mediterranean also played their part in fuelling the rivalry. As Uruñuela explains:

“The British media have also created and nourished the controversy [over team favouritism], in such a way that even the Spanish fans were happy when Hamilton and McLaren lost the championship.”

Quite. Uruñuela touches on an important point here. It is not so much, in my view, that Spanish fans blame Mclaren and Hamilton for Alonso s failure to win the championship. But rather that Hamilton s failure was, in the context of Alonso s disappointment, the next best thing, something to celebrate and get happy about. It is a natural sporting reaction. Again, how many of us have celebrated the retirement of a rival driver?

Does F1 have a racism problem?

To come back to the events at Barcelona, I have to agree with Circuit de Catalunya boss Ramon Praderas when he said that incidents had been “taken out of context”. The vast majority of the so-called abuse was in my view nothing more than entirely healthy sporting sledging motivated by an intense rivalry between two ultra competitive drivers. Hamilton is more than mature enough to deal with this and may even thrive on it.

As for the few individuals who took it upon themselves to black-up , they have since claimed they were merely readying themselves for a carnival. While their actions are not to be condoned, I can t help but feel there is a thread of truth in this. There was definitely an element of stupidity rather than real racist intent. It reminds me of the row over photos of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform at a party.

I don t believe Formula One has a racism problem in the same way that some other sports do and the FIA should avoid pandering to the actions of a minority. The governing body should think twice about just how much impact an anti-racism campaign could have.

What can be read into Raikkonen’s pace?

Alarm bells started ringing in the F1 community this week as Kimi Raikkonen set a searing pace in the new F2008. But just how worried should fans be about a Ferrari whitewash in 2008?

Kimi Raikkonen looked very impressive at Bahrain testing this week. Had he not been consistently a second faster than Massa and some two seconds faster than last year s pole time, you might have been forgiven for dismissing the results as inconclusive pre-season form. But one can t help but feel it is a different Kimi Raikkonen to the one that began the 2007 season. Worryingly still is that Ferrari have yet to implement a radical new aero package for the F2008. That said here are a few reasons why fans worrying about a repeat of 2004 should not despair. Well, not yet anyway.

Firstly there is the issue of testing itself. For anyone that isn t a team member, predicting performance really does require a crystal ball. For every positive indicator of performance one can almost always dig up counter arguments. True, Raikkonen s 1m30.415 flyer on Wednesday was considerably quicker than last year s pole. But as some commentators have been quick to point out, comparing a test session with a race is somewhat superfluous given the differences in track temperature. In 2007 the teams were considerably slower at the April race than they were at the February test session. Indeed, compare testing with testing and Raikkonen s 1m 30.415 this week was actually beaten by several other cars at the February/March test last year. But to counter the counter argument as it were, track temperatures at the February test last year were higher than the cooler 12/18ºC (air) and 14/28ºC (track) temperatures that Raikkonen had to contend with earlier in the week.

So fans should avoid reading too much into the furore that was made in the newspapers about Raikkonen s pace. That is not to say that Ferrari are not super quick of course, but rather that it is difficult to make such a judgement on the time-sheet alone.

Leaving testing aside, I think there is a broader reason why a repeat of Ferrari s dominance in the early millennium is unlikely. I will make a bold statement here and say that in the early 00 s Michael Schumacher was the quickest driver out there. There was simply no one to challenge him. True, the Ferrari was supreme but so was Adrian Newey s Mclaren in 1998/9 and there was one driver out there who still found a way to mount a championship challenge. (It really annoys me when people blame Schumacher for making the sport boring. People have short memories. If he hadn t been around in 1998 and 1999, it would have been Mclaren and Mika Hakkinen making the sport boring.)

The era of one driver supremacy is long gone; Raikkonen and Alonso effectively put an end to it. And now with Hamilton, we have the mouth-watering prospect of three drivers in which there is absolutely nothing to choose between in my view battling it out in separate teams. Combine this with the loss of traction control, which should mix things up a bit and make driver errors more likely under pressure, and I think it will be a while before we see the same kind of Ferrari dominance that existed in the Schumacher era.

I wait to be proven wrong.

Christopher Hayes.

Can Red Bull deliver on their ambitious 2008 target?

Red Bull Racing have set their sights on the much coveted best of the rest accolade in 2008. But the launch of the RB4 and its early testing performances suggest that the Milton Keynes based team still have a lot of work to do before Melbourne.

It s a crunch year for Red Bull. In 2007, when it was clear that Newey s hunt for quick performance wins had resulted in a flawed design the RB3 was quick but incredibly fragile and unreliable resources were pumped into developing the RB4. The team went on an ambitious expansion programme increasing staffing levels to 540, opening a new construction facility and reinstating their wind tunnel.

In short, 2007 was all about 2008, though that should not detract from some impressive performances from David Coulthard and Mark Webber amidst a series of reliability nightmares. A lot of pressure is on Team Principal Christian Horner to deliver this year. Speaking at the launch of the RB4 at Jerez, Horner went on record with the team s ambitious target of what can be interpreted as third in the Constructors Championship:

“Our target is to build on the progress we saw at the end of last year. In the final three races, in a tight group we were theoretically the fourth fastest team and we ll be looking to build on that.”

The launch itself was by all accounts a lacklustre affair; almost an inconvenience to the team as it ceased testing duties momentarily to pose for a few photographers. There was little to offer world s media. Legendary F1 photographer Keith Sutton of Sutton Motorsport Images elected not to attend and later described the event as “appalling”:

“It looked a great launch didn t it, probably the cheapest launch of the year. Just roll it out of the garage,” he joked on FormulaPod.com. “No actual thought about the background. No actual thought about what time […] It was just appalling,” he added. The event was a far cry from the razzmatazz that has come to be expected of the Red Bull brand.

It suggests one of two things. Either Newey has designed a dog of a car and the team genuinely don t want or need the press coverage. Or, Red Bull are sitting pretty on an absolute gem and are simply reluctant to give anything away to the outside world. We won t know until Melbourne. That said, there have been a couple of indicators from testing which may allow some people armed with a crystal ball to better judge Red Bull s actual position.

Starting with the positives, there have been no signs of any gearbox and transmission related problems throughout the three winter test sessions at Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia. Transmission was Red Bull s Achilles heel in 2007 contributing to many of the team s thirteen retirements. Reliability on this front will be essential if the team are to progress especially given the new requirements for gearbox units to last four races.

Secondly, there have been several reports of a buoyed Mark Webber striding around the test circuit paddocks. Talking about the RB4 at Valencia, he said: “It seems to be a big step forward from last year in terms of reliability and speed, which is great.”

Any other driver and such comments could be dismissed as a PR exercise but not Webber, arguably one of the most outspoken drivers on the grid. He would be first to criticise the team over lack of progress so his comments should be taken at face value. Less encouraging for Red Bull fans should be the amount of similarity between the RB4 and its predecessor.

Despite adopting some of the popular features of 2007 most notably the bridged front wing and sculpted rear exhaust unit the RB4 has been criticised for showing a lack of innovation. This view has been reinforced on the test track with the Toro Rosso cars posting faster times than their sister Red Bull team at both Valencia and Jerez. And on the second day of testing at Jerez, Mark Webber, driving the old RB3, actually went a few tenths quicker than David Coulthard in the RB4. However, Adrian Newey maintains that he has not had to sacrifice performance over reliability in designing the 2008 car.

“The [2007] reliability problems didn t come as a result of chasing performance,” he said at the team s launch. “They came through detailed design, manufacturing and operations faults and the reliability systems couldn’t cope.”

“We haven’t had to make any compromises in that respect, it is just a matter of understanding why things were failing and what was breaking down in the system to cause them.”

So the early signs from testing have been mixed. Part of the pre-season excitement is the fact that no one really has a clue about performance until the cars are run in anger at the season opener. That said, my instinct says that Red Bull will struggle to compete with the likes of BMW and Renault in 2008.

Christopher Hayes

Honda recovery will take time

Money doesn t buy you happiness, nor does it buy you success as Honda have been quick to realise this season.

The arrival of former Ferrari Technical Director Ross Brawn to the struggling Brackley based team, along with a series of other high profile appointments, illustrates Honda s new found commitment to long term capacity building as well as continuing to throw money at research and development. But patience will also be required if Honda are to return to winning ways.

It has been a dismal season for the Anglo-Japanese team; the worst in Honda s modern history.

The team s 2007 challenger the RA107 was dogged by aerodynamic instability, consistently outshone by its 2006 predecessor and managed a sum total of six championship points, barely enough for 8th in the constructors championship. The result was a far cry from the success of 2006 in which Jenson Button scored his maiden victory at Hungary.

To make matters worse, the team s performance did little to promote or even justify the team s environmental message conveyed in the car s innovative Earth livery.

I must shamefully admit to an element of satisfaction in seeing a team with one of the biggest budgets in the sport estimated to be just under $400m along with Mclaren and Toyota struggle so badly; especially when you look at teams such as Williams perform so well with only a third of Honda s budget.

I take great comfort in the knowledge that despite all the money that pours into and is generated by Formula One, success in the sport is by no means dependent on budget alone and this should add weight to any future cost-cutting proposals.

You would have to wonder if Honda have had a different view these last couple of years. Heavy investment in R&D has coincided with some very poor decisions surrounding key personnel.

The wind tunnel debarkle in the summer of 2006 was a case in point.

First came the appointment of Schuei Nakamoto as the team s Senior Technical Director. Nakamoto was a former project manager for Honda s motorcycle racing operations and later Race and Test Team Manager for Honda F1.

Geoff Willis, the team s previous technical lead and a chief architect of BAR Honda s turnaround and success in 2004, had effectively been sidelined. He eventually ended up leaving the team after it became clear that newly appointed chief aerodynamicist Mariano Alperin-Bruvera would oversee work at the team s new £30 wind tunnel a role Honda claimed had been set aside for Willis.

Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing but even the most casual of F1 followers would have expressed doubts about the decision to appoint over the head of the vastly more experienced Willis a man whose engineering background had predominantly been in motorcycle racing.

It seems to me that with the loss of Takuma Sato, the appointment was heavily motivated by a desire to promote Honda back in Japan. Team Principal Nick Fry had little say in the matter as did Jenson Button who went out of his way to back Willis.

Much of the RA107 s aerodynamic problems have since been attributed to these personnel changes though the team reportedly also had major problems getting the wind tunnel up and running.

Seeing the error of their ways Honda went on a massive recruitment drive in 2007. The team poached several high-profile aerodynamic specialists including ex-Williams chief aerodynamicist Loic Bigois, the replacement for Mariano Alperin-Bruvera who left for BMW-Sauber.

With one of the biggest budgets in the paddock and a strong set of staff headed up by Ross Brawn Honda are well poised for a recovery. But this will take time.

Ask anyone responsible for driving change in an organisation and he or she will tell you that it isn t the new flashy idea in itself that motivates progression but the way in which that idea is put into practice and becomes ingrained in the routine day-to-day practices.

Ross Brawn will have a limited influence on Honda s 2008 challenger. Indeed the recent testing in Jerez suggests Honda are still off the pace by a big margin.

His best bet would be to focus on the more mundane technical processes and systems something that Ferrari excelled at so that the design he does have control over has the maximum impact and can be properly tested and monitored. This is something Honda have suffered from badly with the team even admitting once to resorting to the traditional method of throwing parts on the car and seeing if it goes quicker.

The big question now for Honda and Jenson Button in particular is how much time they are prepared to give to the team s recovery.

Christopher Hayes

Don’t despair Ron

It has been a bittersweet year for Mclaren. It began with the explosive debut of Lewis Hamilton whose unexpected speed fostered progressive competition in the team. Both drivers were getting the best out of a good car and by mid-season Mclaren were looking clear favourites to take the driver s title. But it was a weary Mclaren machine that returned to Woking at the end of the season. The team had left Interlagos with a $50 million tab and no silver wear to show for it. And a few weeks later, the news everyone expected was confirmed; Fernando Alonso was packing his bags.

So where did it all go wrong? How on earth did Mclaren let the drivers championship slip through their fingers?

It is tempting to attribute Mclaren s downfall in 2007 to the very public row over intellectual property and the internal tension that this exacerbated. True, it cost them the constructor s championship whether or not you agree with the FIA s conclusions. But can it really explain the way they threw away the drivers championship? Lewis Hamilton arrived at the penultimate Grand Prix with a 12 point lead, does not some of the blame rest with him and his engineers for the tactical mistakes in Shanghai and Brazil?

You could argue that the intense rivalry between Hamilton and Alonso made worse by the spy scandal and claims of driver favouritism had adverse effects on the team s campaign. Had the two drivers not been racing each for the title, or had Mclaren backed a single driver, the mistakes of Alonso and Hamilton at Fuji and Shanghai could have been avoided. Indeed, these two DNF s proved absolutely fatal for Mclaren. They allowed Raikkonen to bring himself right back into contention.

While the off-track politics did not help the team s campaign I don t think it is fair to say that it was the only reason why Mclaren left Interlagos empty-handed.

Personally I think a lot of the blame and this is not quite the right word lies with Hamilton, after all it was he who had the 12 point lead heading into Shanghai. But in something of a paradox I don t think blame should actually be ascribed.

What we saw in Shanghai when Hamilton was doggedly fending off Raikkonen on a delamanting tyre, and again in Interlagos when he ruthlessly tried to retake his position from Alonso, was a quality not a weakness. It is one thing to be so callously aggressive at the start of the season when the pressure is off, quite another to have the same confidence and determination to do so in the heat of a championship decider.

Yes, Hamilton s actions may not have been the right things to do in the context and unquestionably helped Raikkonen win the championship. But it was precisely that aggressive approach and refusal to settle for anything other than first which got him into a championship fighting position in the first place. It is a quality that made Michael Schumacher so exciting to watch. He too often fell victim to his racing instinct, most notably at Hungary 2006 when, having been left an open goal from Alonso, he refused to settle for fifth place and ended up colliding with Heidfeld in a bid to make up ground.

Ron Dennis should not be disheartened with the outcome of 2007. He should avoid trying to change his protégé s approach to racing. Hamilton s aggressive style is a quality which in the long run, as with Schumacher, will win him more championships than he will lose.

Above all Dennis must resist the temptation to pair Hamilton with a lesser driver. Hamilton still needs to develop as a driver and allowing him to slip into a comfort zone would not be the best way to maximise his potential. He needs to be constantly pushed as he was this year. Contractual obligations permitting, Nico Rosberg would be my first choice for the second Mclaren seat.

There is another reason for Dennis to smile. History has shown an almost formulaic tendency amongst world champions. When a driver has successfully wrapped up two world championships for the same team it is as if a little warning light turns on in his brain: “I need a new challenge; I need to prove I can win in a different and or lesser car.” Ron Dennis must know that he cannot hold on to Hamilton forever however many clauses and stipulations he puts in the Englishman s contract. Hamilton s failure to take the 2007 championship may have just extended his stay at Mclaren.

Raikkonen well poised for title battle

Barring an injury-inflicting accident, a DNF was just about the worst possible result for Lewis Hamilton in last week s Chinese Grand Prix. Not only has it let Alonso right back into the hunt but crucially for Mclaren and Ron Dennis it has also given Ferrari s Kimi Raikkonen a whiff of the title.

Like many others I was amazed at the team s decision to keep the wounded Mclaren out on the track for so long. Martin Whitmarsh, Mclaren s CEO, later laid the blame with the team and attributed the decision to stay out to the changing weather conditions and a desire to bring Hamilton into a pit-stop window.

While prolonging the pit-stop would not have made things any easier for Hamilton, ultimately the incident was caused by Hamilton overcooking it into the water logged pit entrance, not a delaminating tyre which caused no fundamental problems around the rest of the track s corners.

We saw exactly the same thing in Turkey when Hamilton suffered a right front tyre failure. On entering the pit-lane to change tyres he locked up badly and barely avoided the armco barrier. That is not to say that Hamilton was solely to blame for his excursion into the gravel in Shanghai but rather to suggest that inexperience also played its part.

The big winner to emerge from the events in China is Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn has been seriously impressive in the last few races, particularly at the rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix where he scythed his way through the pack, in atrocious conditions and with little more than a few metres of cockpit visibility, to finish third.

With both Mclaren drivers taking themselves out in the last two races, Raikkonen has definitely been let in the back door. If anything should happen to Hamilton in Brazil, Raikkonen, who is only three points adrift of Alonso, would be perfectly poised to steal the title from right under Mclarens noses. What an absolute disaster for Ron Dennis if Mclaren were to fall at the last hurdle given everything the team has gone through this year.

Support from team-mate Felipe Massa will be absolutely key for Raikkonen. Herein lies a problem for the Finn. Massa has had a relatively successful season, out-racing Raikkonen on a number of occasions it has to be said, particularly in the early part of the season. Had his luck been different in some of the later races he may well have emerged as Ferrari s main challenger. Given his close relationship with Ferrari s management as well, you would have to say that Massa will be reluctant to play second fiddle to Raikkonen least of all in front of his home crowd in Sau Paulo, Brazil.

I think we saw signs of this in China. Massa appeared unable to challenge Alonso after the Spaniard emerged just in front of him following the last round of pit-stops. Yet towards the end of the race Massa was putting in some absolute flyers suggesting he could have made much more of an impression on Alonso if had wanted to. Massa may be out of the title hunt but he is by no means out of play; he may just be the deciding factor.

It has been a strange few weeks. Who would have thought that a bit of H2O could wreck so much havoc. Yet here we are a week away from the season finale with the mouth-watering prospect of a three-way title battle. I ll spare you from any creative preamble. I think Raikkonen captured it best: “it will be interesting.”

Christopher Hayes