Thursday, May 26, 2011

Monaco GP Preview

Widely considered the jewel in the F1 crown, the Monaco GP is many things to many people, the most glamorous event on the calendar and one of the most historic races, it is a unique spectacle for fans, a logistical nightmare for the teams and a first class weekend of business for the executives and big wigs of the F1 world.

One thing it rarely provides is compelling racing, the twisty narrow Monaco circuit is a unique and unforgiving circuit where an unlucky driver can find himself following the same car for fifty-eight laps. Track position is everything as overtaking is practically impossible, and even with DRS and KERS, I'm not expecting it to be any different this year.

The one wildcard is the Pirelli tyre. The teams will be using the soft prime and the super-soft option for this weekend's meeting, and depending on who you listen to that could mean anything between a five stop strategy or an old fashioned two stopper. Lewis Hamilton is convinced that the tyre wear will be the biggest factor in the racing, and he will be encouraged by the McLaren's tyre performance in Spain. Getting the strategy right will be vital, and it will be intriguing to see how much the teams are willing to risk in qualifying in order to get a good grid slot. The unforgiving natural of the Monaco barriers will also put safety cars in the forefront of the strategists minds.

The form book is interesting. Vettel has shown flashes of his talent, but never won in Monaco. Last year he missed the front row of the grid while his teammate Mark Webber won the race from pole position. Webber is a strong contender in Monte Carlo, with a string of strong finishes including last year's victory, and he will want to prove he's not done for yet after his disappointing performance in Spain. Hamilton likes to talk up Monaco as a track where the driver (ie himself) can make a different over car performance, although in reality Hamilton's Monaco form is mixed. He impressed everyone with a second in his debut season, and won it the following year on his way to the championship, but for the last two years he has failed to make an impression. Button has a similarly mixed history round the street circuit with a solitary victory, and was also involved in a huge accident during his Honda days. Outside the top four there is still a threat from two-time Monaco victor Fernando Alonso and there's also the second winningest driver in the history of the Monaco GP, Michael Schumacher. It's is a real shame we will be missing Robert Kubica for this year's race, as he too is a driver capable of shaking up the order round the tight streets of Monte Carlo.

McLaren should be strong again this weekend; Monaco's lack of high speed corners should bring them closer still to the Red Bulls and Hamilton's bullishness will make him a contender. Hamilton is targeting this race and Canada to turn around Sebastien Vettel's early season dominance, and you feel it is fast becoming now or never for Vettel's rivals. Of course the Red Bull will still be seriously fast. The only real chink in the armor is it's flat speed, but that is something that will not come into play until the Canadian Grand Prix.

First: Sebastien Vettel
Second: Lewis Hamilton
Third: Mark Webber

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barcelona battle offers hope of a competitive season

22nd May 2011
Spanish Grand Prix, Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona

The Spanish Grand Prix, so often a lights-to-flag procession threw up it's fair share of surprises this year, and ended up being an intriguing and tense, if not exactly action packed, race meeting.

One aspect that was certainly no surprise was the result;  a pole position and race win for the Red Bull team. Barcelona's aerodynamically demanding track was always going to suit the RB7 and Sebastien Vettel's fourth win out of five races looked, on paper, to be the most nailed on result of the year so far. So the manner in which Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was able to match the Red Bull's speed was a great relief to those of us who were starting to worry that the championship would be tied up before the end of the summer. With Monaco and Canada coming up, two circuits that may suit the McLaren more than the Red Bull, it might be just the fillip Hamilton needs to really take the fight to Vettel.

Vettel wasn't the only one who was left scratching his head after a one second advantage in qualifying completely vanished during the race. My hunch is that it is the Red Bull's DRS that is skewing the qualifying charts. Freely available to the driver in qualifying, Vettel and Webber were able to maximize the RB7 system compared to their rivals, opening up their rear wings in the middle of some of Barcelona's long medium and high speed corners. Christian Horner is also pointing the finger at the 'fragile' Pirelli tyres, and it is certainly true that the McLaren seems to be able to run longer stints, even for the more abrasive Hamilton. We'll see at Monaco. If the Red Bull is still a second ahead around the slow street circuit of Monte Carlo then McLaren will need to start worrying again.

The big disappointment in Spain was Mark Webber. So completely thrashed by his team mate in the opening rounds, there was a growing feeling that it was now-or-never for Webber at one of his happiest hunting grounds. Pole position historically is a massive advantage at the Catalunya circuit with the past ten races being won from the pole, but Webber only managed to lead for a few hundred yards on the way to turn one. Third position behind Alonso and Vettel still had him in contention for the win, however a combination of poor strategy and a lack of consistent speed saw him leapfrogged first by Hamilton and then also by the three-stopping Button, whose disastrous first lap had seen him drop as low as tenth at one point. Only five races down and Webber already looks like he'll be fighting with Button for third in this year's championship, and after the way he bottled the championship last year, one can't help but feel that the sun is beginning to set on Webber's career at the top.

For me the driver of the day in Spain was Lewis Hamilton. The fastest man on the track, and for once he was also one of the kindest to his tyres, he hounded Vettel all the way to the flag, and it's fair to say that at a track with a few more overtaking opportunities we would've seen a different result. Hamilton has been out performing his machinery for the last two seasons, so to see him in a car that can go that fast at Barcelona will be a massive encouragement to McLaren. Hamilton - Vettel is the rivalry we all want to see, two prodigies that were always destined for the top, the youngest world champions in the sport, the natural racer against the speed demon, and of course the old England versus Germany rivalry!