Month: July 2013

Hungarian GP review: Hamilton springs a surprise


Lewis Hamilton was adamant. With downbeat body language and speaking in a mumbled monotone, the Mercedes driver was decisive in his answer when asked after Friday practice at the Hungarian Grand Prix if he and his team had a chance of winning the tenth race of the Formula One season.

“We just don’t have the speed this weekend,” Hamilton shrugged, all but ruling himself out of contention for the top step of the podium at the Hungaroring.

What a difference 48 hours makes. Last Sunday, after a brilliantly opportunistic drive that married speed and subtlety in equal measure, Hamilton took his first win for Mercedes – and his latest victory at a track that he has made his own in his seven-year F1 career.

The Englishman’s fourth victory at the tight and twisty circuit on the outskirts of Budapest saw him equal the record for wins at the track with seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, and was his third win from pole at the circuit, the only man to win from top spot on the grid since 2007.

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And then there were two

A few lines was all it took – for what those lines did and didn’t say. Listed among the names set to drive the Red Bull RB9 at this week’s Young Driver Test at Silverstone: Daniel Ricciardo. Not listed: Jean-Eric Vergne. And not stated: that the quest to become teammate to Sebastian Vettel at the three-time reigning Formula One constructors’ champions is now down to a race in two.

Ricciardo’s inclusion in the list of drivers on Red Bull’s ‘A’ squad for the three-day test is a clear statement of intent by Red Bull Racing that it’s the West Australian, not his French teammate, who is now the favoured Scuderia Toro Rosso pilot to potentially take over Mark Webber’s vacated seat from 2014 onwards. On the surface, it’s a little harsh on Vergne, given he out-scored Ricciardo 16-10 last year, and shades him 13-11 in their intra-team battle this season. But quality can play as big of a part in such decisions as quantity, and in the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ bubble that F1 operates in, Ricciardo’s recent performances since Webber announced he was quitting F1 late last month – a fine eighth at Silverstone and a second successive equal career-best qualifying effort of sixth a week later at the Nurburgring – surely played a big part.

Of course, Ricciardo has tested with Red Bull before, but the stakes were never as high as this time. Rewind to Jerez in 2009, when a 20-year-old Ricciardo drove the RB5 at an end-of-season young drivers’ test in Spain, when the drivers in attendance actually were young (we’re wondering what the soon-to-be 37-year-old Webber makes of being included in this year’s YDT). In what amounted to a showcase of up-and-coming talent from across the world, Ricciardo was more than a second – light years – quicker than anyone else on those three days in the south of Spain.

A year later, the week after Webber’s biggest career disappointment when he narrowly missed the 2010 world title in Abu Dhabi, Ricciardo’s next Bull run was arguably more impressive. Yes, the track was rubbered in nicely after three days of on-track activity at the Yas Marina Circuit, but setting a best lap time that was 1.3 seconds quicker than Vettel had recorded to take pole position for the season finale confirmed he had the right stuff, and he was on the F1 grid halfway through the next season with HRT.

What does this week’s opportunity mean for the 24-year-old? Yes, it’s another chance to impress those who matter in the Red Bull hierarchy, namely one Helmut Marko, Vettel confidante and assessor of talent coming through the Red Bull-backed ranks. By now, 39 races into his F1 career, Ricciardo is a known quantity; the test and his performance in it will be as much to confirm what the top brass already know as anything else. Where the stopwatch comes to a halt is important, but not the be all and end all. How he works with new people, what feedback he offers, and how he fits in with the team might be just as critical; that said, a strong position on the Wednesday afternoon time sheets won’t hurt.

To many, including this observer, Kimi Raikkonen is still the favourite for the seat alongside his badminton partner Vettel; the Finn is still super-quick, will drive the wheels off anything he parks his backside in and is as utterly disinterested in anything else to do with F1 as ever. All attractive qualities for a team that likes to push the street cred angle as much as it likes to rack up drivers’ and constructors’ titles. But Ricciardo is now very much in the frame, and all eyes will be keenly focused on what he’s able to achieve on Wednesday.

Repeatedly stepping up when the stakes are raised is a sign of a driver with that little something extra. Ricciardo’s performances since his compatriot Webber announced he was leaving the sport augur well. As did Jerez 2009. As did Abu Dhabi 2010. Can Silverstone 2013 be spoken about in years to come as another landmark moment in Ricciardo’s career? Thanks to Tuesday’s announcement, we’re about to find out.

An ‘Italian’ Stallion?

It had happened again. Just four laps into the German Grand Prix, Felipe Massa stood hopelessly and helplessly beside his Ferrari, his race over less than 10 minutes after it had begun because of a careless spin. One race after he’d shunted in practice at Silverstone. Which came one race after he’d binned it in qualifying in Montreal. Which came one race after he’d had two huge prangs at Ste Devote at Monaco, one of which (admittedly) was deemed not to be his fault.

Still, the pattern is clear to see. Harsh as it is to say it, the likeable Brazilian hasn’t been the same driver since he was so desperately unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Hungary four years ago, where an errant spring from compatriot Rubens Barrichello’s car hit his helmet with horrific results.

For a Ferrari driver, Massa’s performances in recent times have been historic – for the wrong reasons. His second place at Suzuka last season was his first podium in 35 races, snapping the longest top-three drought by a Ferrari driver in F1 history (Gilles Villeneuve, with 19 races between podiums, previously held that unwanted record). Massa has finished in the top three just three times in the last 49 Grands Prix. He’s 32 years old, and hasn’t won a race in five years.

If Massa’s seat at Ferrari became available for next year, who would replace him? The job description is clear yet complex – be fast enough to help the team win the constructors’ championship, not be too fast for number one driver Fernando Alonso, and be good enough to sweep up if the Spaniard can’t. Someone like Massa once was, basically.

Further up the pit lane, F1 chatter continues to debate the likely candidates for one prime seat that actually is available, alongside Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull. Some insiders say Kimi Raikkonen’s deal to join Vettel in 2014 is done; others say it’s just a matter of time. Either way, the Finn looks to be in the box seat to take the cockpit vacated by Mark Webber, which doesn’t bode well for the futures of Red Bull-backed neophytes Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo.

From an Australian perspective, where could Ricciardo go if Red Bull decides not to promote from within? Wait a minute: doesn’t he have an Italian surname? Doesn’t he currently drive for an Italian team? And doesn’t that team use a Ferrari engine?

Ricciardo is Australian through and through (just listen to how far into a sentence he can get before uttering the word “mate”), but he’s proud of his Italian heritage. Watch him (and his father Joe whenever he’s in earshot) ever-so-slightly grimace when another member of the British press butchers his surname and calls him “Ricky-ardo” (he’d much prefer an Italian “Reech-ee-ardo” if the flat Australian “Rick-ardo” won’t suffice). He understands the sport’s history, and is well aware that no Australian has ever driven for the Prancing Horse in F1. Alan Jones came closest, while Webber arguably should have pursued a door that was left ajar there before electing to stay at Seb Bull Racing. To believe one theory doing the rounds on the Nurburgring weekend, Ricciardo might have a chance of being the first.

Is talk of lining Ricciardo up for any vacancy at Ferrari should Red Bull’s driver development pathway again fail to promote from within simply a case of putting two and two together and coming up with five? On the face of it, you’d have to say yes. It’s undoubtedly a nice idea, but it’s hard to imagine it coming to fruition.

For one, Toro Rosso switches to Renault engines for next season, ending an association with Ferrari that has powered seven of its eight F1 seasons to date. Two, Jules Bianchi has a four-year association with the Ferrari Driver Academy, and has been doing a terrific job for the back-of-the-grid Marussia team this season. And, perhaps more pertinently, is Ricciardo a touch too quick for Alonso’s liking? We know how the modern-day Ferrari works, with a team built around a number one and a dutiful and slower number two. Austria 2002, “Fernando is faster than you”, and all of that.

Ricciardo has shown enough in recent races to suggest that he has a future further up the grid, but unfortunately for the significant Italian-Australian F1 fanbase (and anyone else in Oz with an appreciation of the history of the sport), it’s likely that future won’t be in red.

German GP review: Vettel ticks the boxes


Last Sunday’s German Grand Prix was a first in more ways than one for Sebastian Vettel. Yes, there was a win, his fourth in the first nine races this season, but this one carried extra weight.

For one, it was his first win on home soil in six attempts – remarkably, the first time a German has won the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in 80 years – and it extended his world championship lead as he sets his sights on a fourth straight title. What’s more, it ended a bizarre statistical anomaly in Vettel’s career – he’d never before won a race in the month of July, which beggars belief given his ever-growing list of career achievements. In the week of his 26th birthday, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect present.

While Vettel made the best of his front-row start to lead pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton into the first corner and finished in the same position 94 minutes later, this was among the most stressful of his 30 career wins to date.

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British GP review: Rosberg rides his luck


Sometimes, you have to be a little bit lucky as well as good. Just ask Nico Rosberg.

The Mercedes driver started from second on the grid in last Sunday’s British Grand Prix, immediately lost a place off the line, and didn’t overtake a single car. As chaos – exploding tires, safety cars, reliability gremlins – reigned around him, Rosberg kept his cool, rode his good fortune and came away from Silverstone with his second win in the last three races – and, after his success at Monaco in May, a second success on one of F1’s most famed circuits.

Little wonder he could only grin when he removed his helmet and balaclava before stepping onto the podium.

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