Button or Magnussen for 2015?

As the 2014 championship nears its end in the artificial confines of Abu Dhabi next week, to be won by either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, it is another silver seat that is provoking interest. At McLaren, it is as close to certain as we can get that Fernando Alonso, late of Ferrari, has a seat for next year in Woking. But who will partner him? Will it be incumbent Jenson Button or incumbent Kevin Magnussen?

Button has an awful lot going for him. He is vastly experienced and arguably the best driver in changing conditions. He has a preternatural feel for grip and a magisterial grasp of strategy and racecraft. He has seen it all, won a world championship. He has scored very nearly double the number of points of Magnussen. To boot, he is a team player; the consummate professional and PR representative that McLaren prize. He may also prove invaluable in the brave new Honda era – his mastery of Japanese cultural niceties, not to mention some of the language, will definitely come in useful.

So says just about everybody. But doesn’t it become tiresome when everyone thinks the same thing. It would be a pity to see Button go, but then…(deep breath)…

He’s not quick enough in qualifying (except for the last few races, where he seems to have mysteriously upped his game – I wonder if team bosses get as suspicious about a threatened driver’s upturn in performance as the cynics among us do). He doesn’t thrill. He looks positively pedestrian in combat. He can’t develop a car, and apparently has insurmountable issues with it if it understeers. At 35 he isn’t a man for the long-term future, as a new engine partnership will probably require.

Then there’s Alonso. Save wet-to-dry races, is there anything Button does that Alonso can’t do better? Even the British press defenders of Button would have to admit that they have marked similarities, with the obvious difference that Fernando is quantifiably a more rounded product. The argument is that it would be silly to have drivers with similar strengths in a team, particularly if one is usually bettered by the other.

On to Magnussen. He was brought into the limelight at the beginning of the season by McLaren and has had, by any standards, a respectable rookie season. He hasn’t set the world alight, which many at Woking were hoping he would, in the wake of Sergio Perez’s departure. But the raw speed certainly seems to be there and with experience he may yet flower.

It has been noted by many in the paddock that McLaren are in far greater need of a superior car than they are of a better driver line-up. But that truism belies the value of the input that drivers can have with the development of a car. You might not put Fernando Alonso at the top of the list in F1 for that skill (Nico Rosberg, on the other hand…). But Button’s shortcomings in that regard do not help his cause.

Ultimately, Jenson Button has been a credit to the sport. He has produced some truly great performances and will go down in the history books as another driver of subtle skill and controlled aggression from the United Kingdom. But the British press calls for his career to be extended for the sake of nostalgia rather than performance are misplaced. Do not think that Ron Dennis will heed them.

Jules’ accident and the psychology of F1

On lap 43 of yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix Jules Bianchi’s Marussia aquaplaned and left the track. He hit a recovery vehicle which had been deployed to retrieve Adrian Sutil’s stranded Sauber after the German had had a similar accident moments earlier, in which he hit the tyre barrier. Bianchi was less fortunate. Judging by pictures released yesterday evening, he appears to have struck the rear of the yellow movable crane, part of which made contact with his helmet. As a result he is now in hospital undergoing neurosurgery.

As other drivers have noted, Bianchi’s predicament supersedes all other considerations. All at this website and many thousands around the world wish him a speedy and successful recuperation. However, there are remarkable tendencies that were shown in the immediate aftermath of Jules’ crash that deserve some notice.

Firstly, the shock was palpable and the atmosphere, even on television, visibly and amongst all personnel, changed drastically to one of horror. This is natural, one would argue, and right. But it is nevertheless curious to note exactly how surprised some people are, in a sport that is at its heart tremendously dangerous. Niki Lauda said as much.

This has a consequence and one that is seldom remarked upon. Some in F1 seem to have forgotten that piloting a piece of carbon fibre and rubber around a racetrack at speeds of up to 230mph carries inherent and considerable risk. It has been said before but has been mercifully out of the frame of late – that if something enters a driver’s cockpit the consequences will be grave. Sadly, with Bianchi, this has transpired. The sport needs to look at itself and decide if it wants to cover the cockpits. If it doesn’t, it has to accept that such accidents may on occasion come to pass. Is the serious injury or even death of a driver worth it?

Another element of this is the ‘perfect storm’ scenario. Although some respected figures have noted the danger at the turn where both Sutil and Bianchi went off, the reality is that drivers could have gone off at any point on the treacherous track in the latter stages of yesterday’s race. The fact that Jules went off near where Sutil did, and the resulting contact with the rear of the movable crane, was awful and horrific, but nevertheless extremely bad luck. Martin Brundle’s similar accident, which has been quoted in support of the ‘dangerous corner’ argument, could have been worse, but wasn’t. It remains very unlikely that a car will go off at the same corner, and still less so that it will strike a foreign object on track.

The psychology of the sport is fragile at the moment, but there is no reason to lose rationality.

Seismic day for F1 leaves winners and losers

“I just finished qualifying, I don’t know if you noticed,” deadpanned Fernando Alonso as he faced press questions immediately after the session today for tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix. The truth is no one had noticed. The news was immense, earth-shattering – that Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull Racing for Ferrari next season, with Alonso presumably the man to vacate the seat at the Scuderia. Daniil Kvyat is in for Vettel at Red Bull, while Alonso is either destined for McLaren Honda or a sabbatical.

There was little else to talk about, even as Nico Rosberg produced a near-flawless lap to take pole and the psychological edge on his rival Lewis Hamilton going into tomorrow’s race. Vettel’s move was similarly a smart one. Unexpected this year at least, in announcing it this morning, he has decisively put one over on his 2015 rivals and is a winner from today’s driver market machinations.

The other people to come out of this smelling of roses are Red Bull, who got not only to say a swift and financially painless goodbye to a man they couldn’t sack but was beginning to look like he wasn’t cutting the mustard, but also to announce Ferrari’s driver line-up before the Italian marque could. (Rather unbelievably, as forumula1.com goes to press, Maranello are still yet to put out a press release). Daniil Kvyat will also be grinning from ear to ear tonight, sitting as he is on the fast train.

But there are also some who have lost out. As noted Ferrari have been caught napping. Their man Alonso, who has fallen out of love with his dream team, now looks like a ditherer with only two credible options, neither optimal. A sabbatical could see him irrelevant in 2016, such is the pace of change, and McLaren Honda are extremely unlikely to be the finished article in their first year of re-collaboration. Jenson Button will no longer be required at McLaren if Alonso parachutes in. Finally, Jean-Eric Vergne is rather ludicrously being elbowed out of the Toro Rosso equation as the son of a rally driver and a two-year-old nab the seats. If STR can find the booster seats, that is.

Amongst all this, there will be a race tomorrow which will be the next instalment in a thrilling, tight championship battle. As long as the typhoon doesn’t hit that is. We have been hit by a storm already this weekend in Suzuka!

Why blaming Rosberg too much could be bad…

Today, on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg made contact at Les Combes. Hamilton was ahead and Rosberg behind, and the front right endplate of the German’s car hit the left rear wheel of the Englishman’s. It caused an immediate puncture for the leader and ruined his race completely, as he retired later, while Rosberg also suffered and ended up second in a race which a car with the Mercedes’ margin of superiority really ought to have won. As it was, the affable Australian Daniel Ricciardo scooped the win gratefully.

Hamilton was understandably upset, as his championship hopes have taken a large dent this afternoon. More pertinently, Mercedes bosses Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and Niki Lauda are to varying degrees angry about the lost points for the team that was caused by the incident. Hamilton is even on record tonight claiming Rosberg did it on purpose and even admitted to it. Mercedes is, it seems, at full fratricidal war.

Which will lead, one supposes, from a period of incident, to hotheaded reaction, to reaction to the reaction, and finally much-vaunted PR-savvy apologies and making-up. It all is quite predictable. But the passion of this particular fight could well have an unintended side effect. It might well turn the respective sides of the garage from simmering competitiveness (generally thought to promote improvement) to petty point-scoring and even sabotage (which is obviously negative). Then, as we saw today, Mercedes seriously risk gifting this title to Daniel Ricciardo. There is recent historical precedent, also involving Hamilton – 2007, when McLaren infighting presented the championship to Kimi Raikkonen.

Why is this incident the tipping point? Why not Bahrain, for instance, or Monaco qualifying? In Bahrain nothing happened so that’s all right then. In Monaco there was a quotient of ambiguity about Rosberg’s actions. But not here. Wolff and Lauda were incandescent post-race, and the blame was laid squarely at Rosberg’s door.

When you look at it, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t to blame. He was never on a par with Hamilton, could and should have backed out and it was Hamilton’s corner. To boot Rosberg takes the added responsibility of being the driver behind and as such the driver with the greater degree of control over the situation.

But it was a small misjudgement. We have seen the great and the good, not least Hamilton himself, lose their front wings clipping other cars – I’m led to believe it’s seriously difficult to know where your front wing actually is. The consequences might so easily have been worse for Rosberg than Hamilton, if the angle had been slightly different, and then I wonder if the blame game would be being played with such alacrity as it is this evening.

I can see why Wolff and Lauda feel as they do. I can also see why they are making it clear to the press, because failing to criticise Rosberg would lay them open to charges of favouritism. As it is, though, their strategy is high-risk; Rosberg may well turn now from total team player to besieged sniper. The knives are well and truly out now. It remains to be seen whether the knife throwers are actually putting their own in the firing line.

Hamilton’s luck: the stats

Lewis Hamilton’s chances of winning the 2014 world championship took another blow yesterday when his Mercedes W05 caught fire in final qualifying. Since the championship is still probably only between himself and his team mate, Nico Rosberg, forumula1.com decided to look into how much damage Hamilton’s luck has caused him this season…

So we thought what we’d do is have a system. Nico and Lewis have finished first and second in every race this year where neither of them has had mechanical issues. So we can say that every time either of them had a mechanical issue, they lost either first or second place – an average of 21.5 points. Where has Lewis been race-unlucky this season? Australia and Canada. (We’ll exclude Canada for the moment, because both of them had brake issues, and Rosberg was able to manage the brakes and therefore can have those points on merit). So Lewis is 21.5 points down.

But then Rosberg was also the victim of gremlins in Silverstone, which means it’s back equal. So let’s turn to qualifying. Can we apply the same rule – that either driver would have come first or second without problems in qualifying? Arguably, yes – although it’s adding another degree or two of decreased probability, that’s balanced out by the probability that the driver without difficulties in qualifying and so on pole has an easier run and wins more often.

But the driver is not losing the whole race here after quali – not both first and second, just the possibility of the win. So he only loses an extra 1.75 points on average – the difference between first (25) and the average score (21.5). (Again, although this does depend on how far down the field he ends up qualifying, that’s balanced out by the fact that he has a vastly superior car to the rest of the field and has in most cases been able to work his way through the field on pace alone to a theoretical second place).

Lewis’ travails in qualifying – Monaco, where he was forced to back off through no fault of his own; Silverstone, where he chose to back off; Germany, where he had brake failure; Hungary yesterday. We can discount Silverstone on the basis that it was his error. But if we take Monaco, Germany and Hungary together, Lewis has lost 5.25 points.

And he hasn’t. He’s down by 14 (even before Hungary today). There are other factors of course, like Hamilton’s slower pitstops, which arguably cause him more lost points. But there are glaring errors, like failing to conserve brakes in Canada, and running into Jenson Button in Germany (which cost him second). So bemoan Hamilton’s luck all you may, fans, but the reality is that the discrepancy between himself and Rosberg is probably to be found somewhere else.

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.