What a strange feeling I was left with after watching the Austin inaugural Grand Prix. It was by all accounts a great race. A fight for the win from start to finish. Garnished with great scraps and fights down the field. Who could ask for more? And yet, I could not enjoy it. That is my own fault of course. Because I am simply way too emotionally invested in this sport. I kinda knew that but it was crystal clear to me after the race. Why could I not enjoy it as much as I rightly should have? Several factors. Let me go through them as I also disect a race that in itself really was crackingly good.
Slip, slidin away. That is what the drivers faced on this virgin and very green track. And a conservative tyre choice from Pirelli meant that it took several laps to heat up the tires before being able to set a quick lap. Things were not looking good for Lotus. Pretty bad in fact. So much that Q3 seemed out of reach even. But having just scraped through to Q3, Kimi got finally got his tires in the right window to clock a 5th fastest time.
His teammate did one better in 4th. He did so with the advantage of a changed gearbox however, which eventually demoted him 5 places to 9th and Kimi to 4th. Just like in Abu Dhabi. Great stuff, right? Or was it? 4th is the dirty side and nowhere else is that more true than here in Austin. Experts expected at least 2 places lost at race start for the people on the dirty side. That meant both Ferrari cars also aquired starting spots on the dusty side. But more about that later.
What about the front? The RB8 looked mighty in the hands of Vettel all weekend. But come qualifying, Hamilton got really close and slotted in 2nd, just a tenth slower than the reigning champion. Lewis and Vettel are arguably two of the very best qualifiers at the moment. So the stage was set for a proper Texas showdown if you will.
A SHADY CALL
Before the race got underway, rumors begun to float around saying that Ferrari would fake a gearbox change on Massas car, so he would move down 5 places and thus put Alonso on the clean side. And sure enough, the seal on Massas gearbox was broken and presto, Alonso was starting from 7th all of a sudden.
Was it legal? Well, there is no rule against it. Is it sporting, fair or commendable? Not by a longshot. Yes, Ferrari are doing all they can to give Alonso the best chance at fighting Vettel. But it also meant that there were other drivers being punished by this questionable move by Ferrari and put to the dirty side. I doubt they were happy about that. Yes, penalties happen. But this was orchestrated. And it should absolutely not be allowed. But it was a loophole and it was exploited.
Listen to what Martin Whitmarsh had to say on this matter: “It worked, as it worked for Fernando, and unless we forget Fernando was with us – and it was not doing those things that meant that Fernando left us.“
Here, Whitmarsh lifts the veil a little on 2007. Revealing that Alonso demanded that such questionable tactics should also be utilized in his favor back then. But McLaren would not accommodate them. And we also know that Alonso tried to blackmail Ron Dennis when he did not get the number 1 treatment over Hamilton that he felt he deserved, nay, was entitled to.
Link to Whitmarsh comments: http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/104404
This was the first thing that clouded my enjoyment.
Anyway, moving on. Lights out, and its a mighty roar as 24 cars thunder up towards the very wide turn 1 while it narrows heavily after that. Everyone makes it through ok, but it is clear that the dirty side of the grid all lost places. Perhaps no one more than Kimi. After the first couple of turns he has slipped from 4th to 7th. Ferraris tactics have worked for Alonso and he is already up to 4th place. Hamilton did a good job by only losing one position to Mark Webber from the 2nd position.
Kimi goes for a late dive to pass Schumacher. Great move but it also meant a poor exit down the straight and he is therefore repassed by not only Schumacher but also his teammate. Oh dear. Down to 8th. Meanwhile, Hamilton already makes a move on the tardy Webber but goes wide. He gets it done on the next lap and can take up the hunt for Vettel ahead.
Lots of action further down as well. Schumacher must have made a mistake that I missed, because the timing screen shows him down in 9th and Kimi now has the other Lotus ahead of him. That wont last long though as Grosjeans hotheaded nature gets the best of him yet again. The tricky turn 19 who has caught many drivers out this weekend proved too difficult for the Frenchman in pursuit of 5th place. He spins and drops down to 10th. And down to 14th on the next couple of laps, most likely due to flatspotting his tires in the spin. Lotus calls him in on lap 9 for some new rubber.
Our Finnish protagonist is hot on the heels of Nico Hulkenberg. The poor straightline speed of the Lotus does him no favors down the straight, so he has to hatch another plan if he wants to pass the German. And he does. Lap 13 and we get to witness the overtaking move of the race. Kimi attacks into turn 1 making Hulkenberg go defensive. This gives Kimi a better exit and gets him alongside the Force India. Surely Kimi has to back off as there is really only one racing line through the turn 2-3 combination. Not likely! Its wheel to wheel and balls to the wall as Kimi makes it stick around Hulkenberg. Spectacular! Relive the moment:
Up ahead, Vettel is under heavy pressure. Hamilton has made it into DRS range but Vettels better exit into turn 11 onto the straight is just making him hold onto the lead. After a few laps, Vettel starts to pull away again while Hamiltons tires have taken a harder beating. We hear on the radio that Webber has lost KERS – again. Good news for Alonso in 4th. And there it is. Webber pulling to the side of the road with another alternator failure. That makes it 7 or 8 this season so far for Renault. So Alonso is up to 3rd, after having qualified 9th. Is there no end to his luck?
Pit stops are happening and all front runners are making their stops except Kimi and Massa (and Button who is on the harder tire). Lotus finally pits Kimi on lap 24. 2 laps too late if you ask me, judging from his dropping times. To top it off, Lotus makes a horrible pit stop. 3-4 seconds longer than normal. Apparently a clutch problem didnt make the rear tire stop spinning. This loss of time puts him exactly where he should be way ahead of – behind Fernando. And the Toro Rosso of Ricciardo also makes a pass on Raikkonen while he was struggling to warm up the new set of hards. This situation has been so frequent and symptomatic of Lotus this season and it needs some tending to. So much disadvantage that could have been avoided with a normal stop. Another notch on my disappointment stick for the weekend.
The new set of tires have not helped Sebastian Vettel in shaking off Hamilton. The McLaren has bit into its heels like a leech and its fascinating and nervewrecking to see the two drivers battle back and forth for a few tenths in every sector. And yet I cannot enjoy it to the fullest. I am a Vettel fan as well and my hopes for him winning, gets me so on edge that I am not even enjoying this battle. Perhaps its time for me to take a step back and try to see the bigger picture. Maybe contemplate on why I am doing this..
But you dont care about me going all introspective and shit. So lets get on with it.
THE FICKLE TIRES
Massa pits and gets out just ahead of Kimi. Just to underline, another disadvantage that could have been avoided. Kimi is feisty and passes Massa while he was getting his tires up to temperature. Up to 6th. However, the weather plays a cruel trick on Kimi. As he revealed after the race, the tires were working well until the skies got clouded. That alone made enough of a difference that the tires went out of their optimum working range and his sector times dropped significantly. The Ferrari not having the same problem, made an easy pass on the E20 in turn 1.
He continues to post abysmal laptimes and Grosjean has even closed up right behind him. When suddenly the sky clears a few laps from the end and almost immediately the tires get that little extra heat they need and Kimi is posting times that equal the leaders. In fact, his final lap was just one tenth off the fastest lap of the race. Now to me, it should not be like this. Tires should not be this fickle. A cloud goes in front of the sun and they stop working like they should? Are you kidding me?! That is insane! Second, I am sick to my stomach hearing about tire heating problems. Especially for Kimi. Got enough of that in 2008 you might say. No, this is not what racing should be about. Finding that elusive oh-so-narrow working space for the tires. Ridiculous. I hope Pirelli realises this for next year. Chalk off another point that spoiled the entertainment value on my part.
Interview with Raikkonen where he mentions that cloudy weather hurt his performance: http://www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/104383
THE OVERTAKE FOR THE LEAD
Vettel not only has to deal with fending off a seriously fast McLaren but also negate around backmarkers while keeping Hamilton from getting close. And the long section of S-curves and narrow turns makes it impossible to pass any backmarkers if they are not aware. And for a while it seems that every single time Vettel gets around turn 1 there is a backmarker in front of him. He is able to time it a couple of times so he gets DRS down the straight and thus keeping Lewis at bay. Other times he is just able to make a small gap after passing a slower car and getting a better exit onto the straight.
But this could not last. And here is the thing. Vettel would have kept the lead if not for one person. Namely Karthikeyan. Lewis was unable to get close enough to make a pass before our favorite Indian got in the way with his Sunday drive on lap 42. This got Lewis right up to the gearbox of the Red Bull and Lewis makes his move stick on the outside. Just want to mention though, that Lewis must have gotten about 5 centimeters or something from touching Vettels rearwheel with his frontwing. Why on earth he needed to get so close, I have no idea. What was a brilliant overtake for the lead could just as easily have ended in tears for one of them, even both. Just watch from 0:55 seconds. This is what Vettel complained about on the team radio after – and rightly so:
Okay, onto Karthikeyan. Replays from Vettels onboard shows him losing massive amounts of time while the HRT makes no attempt of getting out of the way. He had nowhere to go you say? Not true. Watch the race again if you can. I did. And I saw backmarkers making room for faster cars way before Karthikeyan did in this case. So a backmarker effectively decided the outcome of the race. It was very unattentive by the Indian and he should have been penalized. Well, its racing and stuff like that happens you say? True, but it was totally unnecessary and in my opinion, races should not be decided in such a random matter. I know they do every now and then, but it was hard to watch. This just put the nail in the coffin of me not being able to enjoy an otherwise awesome race.
To make matters worse, Kimis tire problems make him a relative easy target for Button on the fresher and faster mediums. Mind you, Kimi doesnt make it easy for him and we are lucky to witness some great racing from two very fair drivers. Kimi is defending brilliantly and Button doesnt make any rash moves. Lap 46 and we see how a pass should be made by Button as opposed to Hamilton a few laps earlier. They get wheel to wheel in turn 12 and Kimi doesnt back off. Button has the inside for the next turn though and takes the position. Great racing even if it did go in the opposite direction of what I prefer.
Hamilton takes the chequered flag and one has to say he had it coming after retiring from the lead twice in recent races. Vettel gains points on Alonso who comes third. But only 3 as opposed to 10 points if he had won. Alonsos “feeling” that he would take points from Vettel didnt come true though.
The majority of Formula 1 fans will be delighted to see the championship go down to the wire. I am not one of them. I probably should be, but Im not. I will now be nervous and tentative for a whole week until we see the chequered flag. And I will either be delighted or completely heartbroken. That cannot be good, can it?
Kimi takes 6th and is still able to take 3rd in the WDC with a good result in Brazil. He has now completed every single lap in every race this year. Only driver to do so. Very impressive. And a new record of most racedistance kilometres in a season. However, that also means that he has the most used engines and gearboxes of the lot. Significantly so at this late stage of the season. Lotus will put the freshest box and powerplant in his car for
Brazil. But they will still be disadvantaged to the rest. So it comes down to some Kimi magic again if he is to get a good result and keep 3rd place.
There are some rumors circulating that Lotus are not able to pay Kimi his bonus and salary due to losing a major sponsor. And some news agencies claim that he has even approched Force India just in case Lotus cannot pay him. At the moment, I dont think there is substance in these rumors. Which is why I am not linking to sources. What we do know is that his massive amount of points were not calculated for by Lotus and the performance bonus in his contract is proving costly for them. Even if it is costly, lets hope the cashflow problems are bogus and Kimi can build on his success with Lotus for next year. They are about to get a hefty bonus for finishing 4th in the WCC, so that is also reassuring. That reminds me, congrats to Red Bull for securing the constructors title in 2012!
Until nailbiting in Brazil, take lots of care!
Images © Lotus F1 Team, COTA, Andrew Ferraro, Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, Red Bull/Paul Gilham, Getty Images, Moy/XPB Images, @PHOTO4, motorionline.com, McLaren/Hoch Zwei
Do not hesitate to contact me if you need any of these photos taken down for any reason.