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2015 Singapore Grand Prix

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At some point it was decided that the Singapore Grand Prix was one of the marquee events of the Formula 1 season. While the nighttime backdrop of one of Asia’s premier cities is certainly stunning, the racing has always been kind of a slog. Sunday’s 61 lap running felt like a 2 hour chore compared to the brisk Italian Grand Prix 2 weeks ago. While it was refreshing to see neither Silver Arrow finish on the podium, Sebastian Vettel’s commanding drive from pole to the top step was very much the same plot we’ve seen all season long with a different actor in the title role.

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NBCSN’s Leigh Diffey did his very best to make sure we all knew that Lewis Hamilton was 1 win away from tying Ayrton Senna’s record in Singapore. Despite Hamilton and Nico Rosberg qualifying 5th and 6th respectively, it didn’t stop the network’s bias for Mercedes as the drivers were featured almost exclusively in the broadcast’s opening montage. What happened instead was the more significant achievement of race winner Sebastian Vettel becoming the 3rd all-time most successful driver in Formula 1.

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Daniel Ricciardo in the RB11 didn’t really have a shot at beating Vettel and ultimately finished 2nd. The numerous safety cars which have become synonymous with Singapore presented plenty of opportunities for a scrap but overtaking on the Marina Bay Circuit is a near impossible task. Ricciardo’s best opportunity was ruined when a lunatic fan entered the track on lap 37 – a gate onto the track which was left unguarded may have had something to do with it. The oversight is yet another occurrence where negligence by the staff at a flyaway race may have produced costly and dangerous results. Remember the trackside marshals’s treatment of Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso in China earlier this year?

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Singapore saw the retirements of more big name drivers than any Grand Prix this season. McLaren executed a now routine showing of retiring both cars due to gearbox issues. This came after Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso both had opportunities to score points. While it’s convenient for all fingers to point at Honda, Button’s overtaking tactics and the pit crew suffering from a bout of heat stroke didn’t help turn things around.

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The mishaps continued with a collision involving Force India’s Nico Hulkenburg and the Williams of Felipe Massa exiting pit lane. The crash ultimately ended the races of both drivers with Hulkenberg receiving a 3 grid spot penalty for next week’s Japanese Grand Prix. It was a hasty ruling from the stewards who probably should have waited until the race was over and clearer heads prevailed. 50/50 blame could be taken from the situation but I’m of the opinion that Hulkenberg had the right of way. Surprisingly the 5th retirement of the day was the Mercedes of Hamilton who’s car lost power from a coupler issue on the turbo.

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Meanwhile, the Formula 1 drinking game just got more interesting with the addition of “American Alexander Rossi”. Rossi seems like a great guy and deserved of the Manor drive for the remaining 5 races, but this really is a non-story that took up way too much of the race broadcast. No folks, contrary to what Diffey or the NBCSN team might have you believe, there is absolutely no chance of Rossi winning a Formula 1 Grand Prix in a Manor and it’s highly likely he won’t score any points either. The day’s other non-story, Ferrari mechanics exhibiting “thug-like” behavior and shoving photographers aside to celebrate Vettel’s win on pit lane.

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What is becoming more and more clear every race weekend is that Formula 1 really isn’t that great anymore. It is in many ways like Sir Elton John. The days of hitting the high notes on ‘Tiny Dancer’ are long gone, but fans still amass because of what the singer was, not who he’s become. Formula 1 has a rich and celebrated history and most of us suffer through the current product because we’re still hanging onto that history. “This is Formula 1” we tell ourselves, hoping that this race will be different. The reality however is that there hasn’t been a genuinely great race since Bahrain in 2014 and Britain the year before that. It’s a sport that on average produces one good showing a season and when you consider the other 19 races are duds, that’s a poor success rate.

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Members of the Formula 1 media have been quick to combat this notion. Will Buxton told all of us to get over it following the Italian Grand Prix. He and many others hark back to the days of Ferrari-Shumacher dominance, but ultimately they’re as guilty as we are for using the past to justify the present. Too often are we concerned with Formula 1’s history, always hoping to find a way to weave it into the modern context of the sport. The MLB also does this as they become increasingly irrelevant on a playing field dominated by the NFL, NBA and European football. The only thing any of us should be concerned with is what is right in front of us and what’s in front of us isn’t Formula 1, it’s not even racing.

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The Japanese Grand Prix is next weekend and Suzuka should favor the Silver Arrows who will likely be back on form after today’s misstep.

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Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.

2015 Italian Grand Prix

The notion that rules are meant to be broken holds especially true in Formula 1. The sport wouldn’t have evolved to the point it has, had teams not constantly teetered on the fringes of legality. However, Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza presents a different conundrum because the rules are no longer being enforced by the FIA.

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The 2015 F1 campaign has been a dull one. There have been moments at Silverstone and the Hungaroring, but for the most part it’s been a one horse race. Mercedes’s dominance has them leading races by nearly 30 seconds and for everyone that isn’t a fan of the Silver Arrows, it’s been a continually difficult procession to watch. Within Mercedes, it’s Lewis Hamilton’s championship to lose. Whatever challenge Nico Rosberg hoped to bring in the latter half of the season seems to be slipping further and further away. It’s not just the mental battle that Rosberg has been at odds with, but the team aren’t even arming him with the same equipment on race day. At Monza, Rosberg ran an older power unit heading into its 6th race. The inevitable happened just 3 laps from the finish when Rosberg’s engine failed and Mercedes endured their first mechanical retirement of the season.

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Hamilton on the other hand has been showing unbelievable pace and poise all season. Seemly gone are the emotional outbursts and competitive lulls Hamilton’s been known to have in the past. The now self-managed Hamilton is older, more confident in himself and his abilities on track – winning also helps. Sporting blonde locks at Monza, he drove to a commanding win, his second Italian Grand Prix victory. However, it was discovered during the proceedings that his tire pressure was not within the legal limits of the sporting regulations. The development was followed by a message from Hamilton’s engineers to crank up the pace for the remainder of the race. Watching it unfold, it seemed an odd call for such a comfortable lead, but it soon became clear that Mercedes wanted to finish with as big a gap as possible, bracing for a potential time penalty to follow the race. During the post-race press conference it was revealed to Hamilton by James Allen that Mercedes were being investigated by the FIA for not meeting the tire pressure regulations and that his left-rear tire was 0.3 PSI below the minimum starting pressure issued by Pirelli. The investigation to follow was swift and resulted in no punishment for Mercedes who retained all of their points from the day.

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What will now follow is a debate that will have everyone divided when they really shouldn’t be. A ruling open to interpretation should have been one that costed Mercedes and made an example for the rest of the teams which have been increasingly getting away with infringements that would not have been tolerated in the past. Just 2 weeks ago, nearly every driver on the grid carved their own course through Spa-Francorchamps when the white lines of multiple corners were violated with (in many cases) all 4 wheels off track. No penalties were given at the Belgian Grand Prix and Sunday saw yet another violation of the sporting regulations met without penalty.

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Whether you blame the ruling on Hamilton’s popularity, Mercedes’s overwhelming contribution to the sport or any other theory is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is if the rules are in place they must be followed. Would the FIA have had such a passive response towards a team running a higher fuel flow setting or a wing adjustment beyond the rules? It’s yet another debacle for a sport that can’t afford any more bad PR.

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Much of the talk heading into Singapore will be about rules and it’s very likely the governing body will be much stricter as the season plays out. What should really be considered more is the much larger issue of the sport’s reliance on technology and how that’s impacting the role of driver skill. F1 has reached a point where the penalties, retirements and pitstops are the only things that impact the results. Combine that with an FIA unable to govern the sport and you’re left with the 2015 season we’re in.

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Elsewhere, valiant efforts from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Williams’s Felipe Massa. The current and former Scuderia were the best of the rest and earned well-deserved second and third place finishes respectively. The rest of the top 10 saw standard performances. Kimi Raikkonen did his best to regain as many places as possible after a horrendous start from the front row. He finished 5th behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.

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McLaren’s woes continued with Fernando Alonso enduring another retirement and Jenson Button nursing the car to a meager 14th. Reports say the McLaren-Honda relationship is beginning to crumble. Honda’s Chief Motorsport Officer Yasuhisa Arai was heavily questioned by the media at Monza and asked if he had apologized to the team’s drivers for the engine’s performance. Apparently McLaren are asking for Arai to be removed from the operation. At this point the team is almost unrecognizable and with next season’s preparations already beginning, things aren’t looking optimistic.

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There is no sight quite like the Tifosi swarming around the podium at Monza. It’s the kind of scene we should be seeing at more venues but as F1 moves into new, uncharted territories for higher financial gains, the question of Monza remaining on the calendar beyond 2016 is a controversial issue.

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Bernie Ecclestone wants more money from the race organizers and is threatening to pull it from the World Championship. It’s absurd that Monza getting dropped is even a consideration. Nowhere is the sport better represented by the fans than in Italy and it’s the kind of value that Bernie cannot put a price tag on. The heritage races of F1 must be preserved.

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The teams are headed back to Asia for the Singapore Grand Prix in 2 weeks.

Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.

2015 Bahrain Grand Prix

Last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix proved to be one of the most exciting races of 2014 when the Mercedes teammates battled head-to-head, resulting in a win for Lewis Hamilton. Sunday’s event didn’t have quite the same spectacle, but the chess match between Mercedes and Ferrari is becoming ever more interesting as the sport heads to Europe.

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Much of the talk this week centered around accusations of Hamilton’s strategy made by Nico Rosberg following the Chinese Grand Prix. In an effort to save his tires, Hamilton reduced his pace putting Rosberg on the defensive to a charging Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari. It was a clear sign that not only was Rosberg beginning to succumb to the pressure, but Ferrari were bringing the fight to Mercedes.

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A much more reserved Rosberg showed up in Bahrain this weekend and it was clear he would need to let his driving do the talking. After an excellent showing in qualifying on Saturday, it was Vettel who shared the front row with Hamilton in pole. Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top 4. Contrary to what many, including Mercedes had suggested, both drivers followed the same strategy in Sunday’s race.

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The start saw Ferrari on the offensive with Raikkonen outpacing Rosberg for 3rd. The remainder of the race would be a tire strategy battle that saw Vettel taking a similar course to the Mercedes drivers doing 2 stints on the softs and finishing on the mediums. Raikkonen on the other hand ran his second stint on the mediums and finished on the softs. It was a strategy that ultimately paid off brilliantly and put the Ferrari driver in a position to exploit Rosberg, who cooked his brakes into turn 1 on lap 56. Raikkonen who was outpacing both Mercedes at that point finished 2nd, his first podium of the season. Vettel’s luck wasn’t as good and after a misstep off track damaged his front wing causing the German to head back to the pits for a replacement. The stop left Vettel behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas who was having none of the Ferrari. Vettel’s mistake ultimately had him finishing in 5th.

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Ferrari executed a brilliant strategy with Raikkonen and his unbelievable pace on the medium tires made for a well deserved podium finish. In many ways Mercedes dodged a bullet on Sunday when during the final lap, Hamilton began having brake issues. Reliability has been a factor for Mercedes before and with Ferrari’s pace, they will be there to exploit each and every opportunity as the season progresses. For every bit as good as Vettel and Raikkonen have been so far this season, Maurizio Arrivabene and James Allison are also hugely responsible for the Ferrari turnaround.

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Elsewhere on the track it was more of a GP2 race than anything that corresponded with the battle up front. Apart from Williams, none of the other teams have been able to match the pace of Ferrari in an attempt to challenge the World Champions. After qualifying 6th, Felipe Massa started the race from pit lane but managed to finish 10th after an excellent recovery drive. Daniel Riccardo showed some pace in the Red Bull who’s Renault power unit went kaput meters before the finish line. Christian Horner and Adrian Newey must be loving this very public display of Renault’s “reliability”. You have to feel for Ricciardo who had one hell of a 2014 season. Now he has the opportunity to lead Red Bull and the team are threatening to pull out of the sport completely.

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F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain

Fernando Alonso on track.

In a very predictable, no less disappointing series of events, Jenson Button was unable to start Sunday’s race due to an ERS failure. McLaren Honda said that had Button started he would have been unable to finish the Bahrain Grand Prix. It’s been an uphill battle for McLaren Honda who have somehow managed to become one of the most likable teams in Formula 1 purely because of how well they’re rolling with the punches. As Red Bull are all too willing to complain to anyone who will listen, the Woking outfit have kept their heads down and steadily improved their pace every race weekend. As any fan of the sport will tell you, seconds equal years in Formula 1 and there’s something to be said about Fernando Alonso finishing just one place (11th) outside of the points on Sunday. What McLaren Honda need is testing and although that won’t happen, the European leg of the season should tell a very different story as the team receives upgrades from the factory and continues to dial in the new chassis.

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Overall the Bahrain Grand Prix was an interesting strategic exercise for Mercedes and Ferrari. How fantastic did the sparks look on track? They’re gimmicky yes, but no doubt improve the look of Formula 1. The flyaway races are over for now as the teams head back to Europe for the summer. Can you believe Monaco is nearly a month away? It’s hard to believe how fast this season is moving. See you in Barcelona at the Spanish Grand Prix in 3 weeks.

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Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.