Month: August 2013

‘Get him out of the way’: A fresh look at Webber’s awful starts

The instruction was as dismissive as it was blunt. It was a steamy Sunday afternoon at Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, and Sebastian Vettel was fed up at being behind teammate Mark Webber in a race he’d started from pole and expected to win.

“Get him out of the way,” ordered Vettel to the pit wall over his team radio, and we all know what happened next. Webber led after the final pit stops, at which time Red Bull’s drivers were asked not to race one another. One heeded the order, and one didn’t. Commenting about the one who didn’t, the one who did said: “Seb made his own decision, and he will be protected as usual.” And the latest chapter in in the long-running story of animosity between the two “teammates” was born.

Fast-forward five months as the cars lined up for last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. Vettel second on the grid, Webber third. Vettel made a brilliant start, passed pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on lap one and strolled to his fifth victory of the season. Webber? Another wretched getaway, another poor first lap, another race fighting with cars he shouldn’t have been anywhere near and another recovery job to a solid if unspectacular points finish.

After Belgium, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said the team needed to look into Webber’s inexcusable start issues, which had the conspiracy theorists shaking their heads. And reaching for the facts.

Fact #1: Sebastian Vettel is a brilliant racing driver. At 26, he has three world titles, is close to a lock for a fourth, and surpassing the seemingly-untouchable career records of his compatriot, mentor and friend Michael Schumacher is in play.

Fact #2: Mark Webber is a Grand Prix-winning driver who, but for an untimely crash in teeming rain in Korea in 2010, may well be a world champion to sit alongside fellow Australians Jack Brabham and Alan Jones.

Fact #3: Mark Webber is a poor starter. Always has been, right back to his Formula Ford days. His stint at Jaguar in 2003-04 was punctuated by brilliant one-lap qualifying efforts where he hauled the green machine much further up the grid than it had any right to be before falling backwards in races. Dropping spots when the lights go out has been a frustratingly common occurrence across his 200-plus race career.

Fact #4: Along with Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel is the only driver not to lose a position on the opening lap of a Grand Prix this season.

Fact #5: There have been nine Grands Prix this season since Malaysia and the ‘Multi 21’ fiasco, and for those of you keeping score at home, Webber has had issues in six of them. Vettel? Five fewer than that.

A summary:

The race after the Malaysia blow-up. After being quicker than his teammate in the opening two practice sessions, Webber is 0.4 seconds faster than Vettel in the first part of qualifying before having to stop the car in Q2 with a fuel pressure problem. He starts last, and retires when a rear wheel isn’t correctly affixed to his car in a pit stop.

Webber makes an atrocious start from seventh on the grid at a circuit where (a) he’s typically been strong and (b) has the longest run of the season into Turn 1 (730 metres). Was 14th at the first corner and recovered to fifth. Vettel finished fourth from third on grid.

Webber started fourth, next to Vettel, made an appalling start, and fell to 15th on lap one. His recovery drive back to second was aided when Vettel had his one and only DNF of the season while leading. This was, remember, the same weekend Webber announced he was leaving Red Bull at season’s end, telling a clearly miffed Horner at the last minute. “I didn’t have a clue what happened off the line,” Webber said. “We have to have a look at why these pop up from time to time …”

Vettel is second on the grid, Webber third. Webber makes a good start and stays out longer in the first stint, leading the race at a circuit where he took his maiden victory four years previously. He pits from the lead on lap nine only for a rear wheel – again – to not be correctly attached. Rejoins last and, aided by a safety car allowing him to unlap himself, fights back up to seventh. Vettel wins despite suffering from some intermittent KERS problems late in the race. Some cynics suggest Webber would take an intermittent KERS rather than one that doesn’t work at all …

Webber is within two-tenths of his teammate in FP1 and FP2 before electronic issues in qualifying hamper his KERS and gearbox, seeing him miss Q3 altogether. “It’s stupid, it’s embarrassing and it’s a brutal circuit to be out of position. We should be challenging for the front row and we’re bloody tenth,” was his comment afterwards. Damage done, he recovers to finish fourth in the race, with Vettel third. With his teammate four rows ahead of him on the grid, Webber, interestingly, makes a good start.

As detailed above.

Which brings us back to Christian Horner at Spa last weekend.

“We approach each race as they come, we try to get the best out of the car, we keep pushing in all areas, but there are things we need to improve,” he said.

“We particularly need to address the start issue with Mark, and have to get on top of that. It has cost us too many points so far.”

Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. Let’s see if a team competent enough to win the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles can “address” those recurring problems before the end of the year or before its other driver wins the world title, whatever happens first.


Belgian GP review: Vettel’s blond ambition


Do blonds really have more fun? It seems the answer is yes if Sebastian Vettel’s race day at the Belgian Grand Prix is any indication. The German turned up at Spa-Francorchamps after the mid-season break with a garish dyed hairdo, evoking memories of Jacques Villeneuve circa 1997, and prompting plenty of sniggering up and down the pit lane. But after Sunday at Spa, it was the three-time world champion who was doing all the laughing.

Vettel’s follicular faux pas may have been his only mistake of the weekend. From second on the grid, the Red Bull driver made a brilliant start, scorching past pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on the run to Turn 5 at Les Combes, and wasn’t seen for dust over the remainder of the 44 laps. Two laps into the race, his lead was a commanding 2.8 seconds, and even while being told to slow the pace by ever-concerned race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin late in the race, Vettel still strolled home by 16.869secs for the 31st victory of his career, moving him to equal fifth on the all-time win list with Nigel Mansell.

Emphatic doesn’t do justice to Vettel’s performance, and what was scarier for Red Bull’s opponents is that the one Achilles heel for the team in recent years – straight-line speed – seemed to no longer be an issue if Belgium was anything to go by.

Read more:

A two-wheel interlude: Marc 1, and thinking of Lewis

There’s something quite intoxicating about watching someone come into an international sport with a fresh face and a derring-do attitude and upset the established order. So with F1 on a four-week break just a race after having had a three-week break (honestly, who designs these calendars?), I booked a cheap flight or six and headed to Indianapolis, to see MotoGP rookie sensation Marc Marquez strut his stuff. It was hard to be disappointed in what I saw.

Getting the Australian sporting media to look past the end of its (locally-focused) nose is hard at the best of times, with footy, footy and more footy the order of the day (what type of footy depending on what state you live in). So it was great that Inside Sport saw something in the Marquez phenomenon, and off I went to the US for them to find out more. In a media landscape where seemingly most of it is breathlessly reporting on what football player A said about player B, or what so-and-so said on Twitter yesterday while brutalising the English language in 140 characters, Inside Sport stands out like a beacon, 20-plus years strong and loaded with actual feature content the likes of which it’s hard to find in Australia. But I digress …

Marquez has a firm handshake, a developing sense of humour (he’s got quite an earnest sarcasm to him), and displayed remarkably better English than the last time I’d come across his path not even a year ago, but that’s probably in fitting with his penchant for being a quick learner. Sunday at Indy was his fourth victory in 10 MotoGP starts, consolidating his championship lead while winning from pole and obliterating the circuit lap record. What’s more, he does it in a style that grizzled veterans of the sport struggle to completely comprehend. I spent a half-hour on the inside of Turn 9 at Indy on Saturday, watching him sit off the side of the bike while tipping it into the sweeping right-hander behind the pits, playing dare with the grass on the outside as his bike drifted through the turn light years quicker than anyone else’s. The occasional explosion of grass as he missed his ideal line by a millimetre or two showed just how close to the ragged edge he rides, and it was massively impressive.

Maybe because I was at Indy, my mind started wandering back to when we last had a newcomer explode on to the F1 scene in a similar fashion, and memories of Lewis Hamilton’s 2007 season started flooding back. He was older (22 to Marquez’s 20) and had a preparation for the big-time unlike any rookie before or since, but the excitement permeating through MotoGP at the moment is reminiscent of ’07 and Hamilton’s rise to being a title contender from day one. It was North America (Montreal and Indy) that saw his first victories and set him on his way, and had McLaren been able to manage its drivers better, Hamilton could have done what Marquez is threatening to do, and win at the pinnacle of his sport on the first attempt. That Hamilton has only one title to his name despite being, arguably, the most talented (if not most complete) driver of his generation is one of the great shames in some respects, even taking away all of the on-again off-again girlfriend business and banal daily updates about Roscoe on Twitter.

I’ve done Indy multiple times now and you can’t get a better place for motorsport in the US. The place reeks of history, acknowledges its past brilliantly while moving very much in step with the present, and the whole town lives and breathes motorsport. The circuit for the bikes, the F1 layout in reverse, is pretty rubbish to be honest, but for the sport to be there is enough. F1 should have never left – we know why it did of course, but give me a proper racing venue over a slick Tilke-drome any day of the week, no matter how shiny and impressive the newer cookie-cutter venues are.

Back to Marquez. Asked if the Indy circuit was too flat, if the ugly tarmac changes made it less than ideal, what he’d change, he grinned after winning there for the third consecutive year and said “nothing”. Once the laughter had died down, the racer in him came out. We shouldn’t always race on the same types of circuit, he reasoned. Old, new, elevation changes, flat, whatever … it should be a diverse and challenging world championship, nothing more, nothing less. Fellow podium-finishers Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo nodded in agreement, as did some of the press, many of whom have no doubt become jaded by the endless kilometre-long straights and ever-tightening right-hand radius first turns that make up many of the venues on certain other motorsport calendars.

And with that, Marquez and everyone else in the paddock was off, manically tearing down pit garages and dismantling equipment for the absurd back-to-back that is Indianapolis and Brno in the Czech Republic, which is followed by Silverstone the week after that. Fine if you turn left when you get on the plane, I guess. As I said, who designs these calendars?

The best news to come out of the weekend is that Indy will be on the MotoGP calendar next year and likely beyond. Yes, some circuit modifications are in order (Turn 4 at Indy may be the worst corner in the sport, just a dull, useless waste of time before the riders can twist the throttle again), and the whole place is likely to be re-surfaced before next year’s race. It’s a win for MotoGP, a win for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a win for common sense. And for me, as I’ll undoubtedly be back to visit a place where motorsport – local and global – really matters.


In conversation with … Daniel Ricciardo

Together with Tony Schibeci from the ‘On the Grid’ show on Melbourne radio station 1116 SEN, I spoke with Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo about the recent F1 Young Drivers Test at Silverstone, how he’s turned his 2013 season around, and when he expects to know if he’ll be replacing Mark Weber at Red Bull Racing for next season. Here’s some of what Ricciardo had to say.

You’ve often mentioned that you typically get very little information from Red Bull about what they want you to do and when until just before it happens. Did that happen with your recent Silverstone test?

Daniel Ricciardo: “I got notice the weekend before, so probably four days before. So not much notice, but it was all good. Since I’ve been with Red Bull, a few, let’s say spontaneous, things have happened or come up, so I’m used to the short-notice things now. That wasn’t really an issue, more a bit of excitement.

The weather (for the Young Drivers Test) at Silverstone was great and I got to compare the two cars, jump in and out of one and the other. It was a bit of an assessment for those guys, for them to have a look and see how I went. Some say ‘how was it dealing with the pressure?’ and all of that, but I just saw it as something fun, getting to drive two pretty cool cars and drive them as fast as I could. So that was a bit of fun, and I didn’t let the pressure get too much. I had a bit of an off (in the gravel), but that was just pushing and trying to get the most of it. I definitely wouldn’t put that down to nerves, I was probably overdriving if anything.”

What were the differences between the two cars, and were you surprised to not see your teammate Jean-Eric Vergne get a drive in the Red Bull as well?

DR: “They are different beasts. The Red Bull doesn’t really need an introduction; it’s known to be for the last few years one of the quickest cars on the grid, and very good in the downforce department. In terms of under braking and through the high-speed corners, the car is pretty impressive – not glued to the track, but close enough, and definitely up there with the better of the F1 cars these days. That’s where you really feel (the difference), mainly braking and the speed you can carry through the high-speed stuff. In terms of power, it was pretty transparent to me. The engines sound a bit different from the cockpit – the Ferrari is a little bit more high-revving, while the Renault is a bit more of a deeper noise.

With the teammate thing … I guess when they told me I was having a go, that’s all I was really worried about. I was pretty excited it was me.”

Have you been given any indication yet on a timeframe for the decision of who replaces Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing and when you might know more?

DR: “I get the impression that they want to make the decision sooner rather than later, so maybe even during the (mid-season) break or soon after, maybe in the second part of the season. I don’t think we’ll have to wait until November and the end of the season to know. For me, it’s to try to get the most out of the car I’m driving now and try to out-do my teammate – that’s all I can do. It’s up to (Red Bull) to assess if that’s enough or not.”

You’ve mentioned that you’d taken some time out to re-assess your approach after the Canadian Grand Prix and re-think the way you go about things. What have you changed and why has that worked?

DR: “We were probably trying to do too much with myself and my engineers. We always seemed to be staying at the track … we were pretty much the last ones there, and maybe we were trying to over-analyse a few things. The work we were doing, we could have done it differently. My teammate would leave the circuit two hours before me and still finish ahead of me the next day, so the extra work I was putting in wasn’t really productive. There were just a few signs that made me think ‘OK, I need to try to do something a bit different here’. The whole approach away from the technical stuff was the same, the training, the fitness and the mental side of things was fine – it was more a technical thing with my engineers that we could have tried to have done better. We spoke quite a bit and took probably more of a simple approach for the next few races, and a decisive approach in terms of changing the car and what to do. We didn’t ponder too much and it seems to have helped us a little bit.”