Month: December 2013

F1 2013 review: The more things change …

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE DECEMBER 11 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS. READ MORE HERE

Maybe there is something to the theory that Formula One only comes up with a season filled with drama, intrigue on and off track and a championship battle that rages until the last possible moment in even-numbered years. Think 2008, and Lewis Hamilton’s late, late pass on the final lap of the final race to steal the title from a crestfallen Felipe Massa. Think 2010, when four drivers went into the season finale in Abu Dhabi with a shot at the crown, which was won by Sebastian Vettel after the German hadn’t led the standings at any other time that year. And cast your mind back to 2012, where the last race in Brazil came down to a straight fight between Vettel and Fernando Alonso that only went Vettel’s way after a remarkable recovery drive from the back of the field.

Season 2013 had all of the ingredients to produce another campaign that would live long in the memory of those who relish gripping sporting contests, but the rubber-shredding chaos of the British Grand Prix saw a change to the construction of Pirelli’s tires in line with what it supplied the sport with in 2012. In the final 11 races that followed, one man won 10 of them.

In doing so, Vettel moved himself up to fourth on the all-time win list with 39 wins, just two victories behind Ayrton Senna, which was almost unthinkable as recently as three years ago, and his fourth straight title established or equalled records for wins in a season (13), points scored (397), the greatest winning margin (Alonso was 155 points behind as runner-up), and plenty more besides.

It was a tame end to the V8 era, and a season eerily reminiscent of Michael Schumacher’s similarly-dominant campaign of 2004, where the Ferrari driver annihilated the field and left many wondering how they could ever catch up. Of course, nothing lasts forever – as proven by ’04 being Schumacher’s seventh and final title – and a raft of rule changes for 2014 will be welcomed by all but one driver and his team.

That much we know, but what else did we learn in 2013? Read on.

1. We’ve seen this before
There was a brilliant German driver who raced for an outfit with a massive budget and the best equipment who used searing speed, laser-like focus and the almost complete attention of his team to rack up one win after another, all against the backdrop of questionable ethical and moral decisions at rare times of duress. And then there was Sebastian Vettel …. Vettel’s record-breaking 2013 showed that the ‘Baby Schumi’ moniker that has followed him throughout his career is still applicable, from capitalising on the best car on the grid to his insatiable hunger for success and his occasional penchant for making regrettable decisions in the heat of battle (filed under ‘Multi-21’ after defying a team instruction to overtake defenceless teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia). The boos that followed him for much of the rest of the season as he lifted one winners’ trophy after another – justified or not – were a distraction from what the 26-year-old achieved in 2013. Like Schumacher through the early part of the 2000s, watching man and machine in harmony in pursuit of perfection may not be compelling viewing, but credit needs to be given where it’s due.

2. An OBE is the MVP
Sports in this country like to anoint a Most Valuable Player; in F1, the Most Valuable Person would undoubtedly be Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing’s chief technical officer who was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for his services to motorsport. The 54-year-old design guru won his 10th world championship across three decades with three teams when Vettel took the RB9 to the 2013 crown; the notoriously publicity-shy Newey generally makes a better fist of new rules and regulations than most, meaning all eyes will be peeled when the RB10 breaks cover at the first test of 2014 at Jerez in late January. As Webber departed Red Bull at the end of the season, he made it clear where Newey stands in the sport. “He’s a genius,” was the Australian’s assertion, and it’s one that hard to argue against.

3. Webber’s career was a success
Yes, Vettel’s nine straight wins to end 2013 matched the total number of victories his teammate managed in a 215-race career, but Webber’s tenacity, skill and determination to wring a 12-year stint in F1 out of a three-race contract in 2002 is the sort of story you wonder will ever be replicated in this era of ever-younger drivers with increasingly weighty wallets. By his own admission, the 37-year-old’s motivation waned as the season progressed, but he finished strongly with two poles in the final five races and three straight podiums before stepping away. No, he wasn’t Sebastian Vettel, but Webber’s achievements against him will likely look better over time as the German bids to make the F1 record book his own. The sport will miss him.

4. Sometimes staying put is the best option
McLaren ended 2012 with arguably the fastest car on the grid, and as most teams took an evolutionary approach to tweaking their machinery for 2013 ahead of the big rule changes planned for the following season, McLaren went against the grain by producing a revolutionary car that stretched its ample resources in a bid for a first drivers’ title since 2008. It was a gamble that could barely have gone worse, the team going without a podium for the first time since 1980 and needing a late-season push just to see off the likes of Force India and Sauber to finish fifth in the constructors’ championship. Sergio Perez was signed with great fanfare and then dumped within 12 months, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh candidly admitted the annus horribilis was “a symptom of too much ambition”.

5. A three-pointed star can shine
With its motorsport history and a host of a big names in the cockpit and behind the scenes, Mercedes had largely failed to impress in the three years since its comeback to the sport in 2010, but this season was when it finally arrived. Eight poles from nine races from round three in China showed the team was a legitimate front-runner, and while the F1 W04 was harder on its tires than most, three victories and a strong second in the constructors’ championship was a massive gain on 2012, where the team managed just one top-10 finish in the final six Grands Prix. With a strong driver line-up being retained for 2014 and what is thought to be the best engine in F1 as the sport changes to 1.6-liter V6 power plants, there’s much to look forward to for fans of the Silver Arrows.

6. A Prancing Horse casts a large shadow
The internal politics within Ferrari provided one of the more fascinating subplots of 2013. Alonso, increasingly frustrated at seeing his status as the sport’s top driver overwhelmed by the sheer statistical dominance of Vettel, aired his criticisms of the team one time too many for Luca di Montezemolo after saying he wanted “the same car as the others” for his 32nd birthday in July, with a statement soon after saying the Ferrari president had “tweaked Alonso’s ear” while reminding him that “all the great champions who have driven for Ferrari have always been asked to put the interests of the team above their own”. It was a public dressing-down that raised eyebrows, and Ferrari’s decision to replace the subservient Massa with 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen as Alonso’s teammate for next season soon after left few with any doubt as to who calls the shots at the most famous team of all.

7. The French evolution
It was just over a year ago that Webber referred to Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after punting the Australian out of the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, yet another opening-lap incident for a driver who had only just returned from a ban for causing a massive shunt at the start in Belgium. The Frenchman’s rough edges were still apparent early in 2013 – his Monaco weekend finished with three big accidents and a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Canada for taking out Daniel Ricciardo – but his late-season form was too consistently good to be thought of as a fluke. In the final six races, the 27-year-old had four podiums and a fourth, and his one non-finish came when his Renault engine decided to end the V8 era earlier than the rest of the field by blowing up in Brazil. With Raikkonen off to Ferrari, Grosjean will inherit the responsibility that comes with being a team leader at Lotus in 2014; on the strength of what we saw late this season, he’s up to the challenge.

8. Money talks more than ever
It’s somewhat of an indictment on modern-day F1 when a driver like Pastor Maldonado – who scored one point all season – accused Williams of sabotaging his car in qualifying for the penultimate race in Austin, knowing that his combination of speed and $30 million in funding from the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA would all but guarantee him a place on the 2014 grid, a place he duly found at cash-strapped Lotus. It was Lotus, of course, that Raikkonen left after saying he hadn’t been paid all season, fleeing to Ferrari and scheduling back surgery that ruled him out of the final two races after threatening to go on strike. And it was Lotus who considered Nico Hulkenberg, who continually out-performed his Sauber machinery in the second half of the year to become of the stars of the season, before settling with Maldonado and his millions. Lotus are far from the only team to consider drivers based on the depth of their pockets as much as their talent behind the wheel, but F1’s parlous financial state was brought into starker focus by the team that was Red Bull’s main challenger across the final stages of the season making the decision to go with a lesser, but wealthier, driver over someone like Hulkenberg, who must be wondering what he has to do to get a break.

9. Britney moves up the charts
Nico Rosberg – once derisively known as ‘Britney’ for his long blond locks that could have been those of Britney Spears – finally came of age in 2013, showing the promise that was evident from the moment he set the fastest lap of the race on his F1 debut for Williams in Bahrain in 2006. The 28-year-old had always demonstrated flashes, but it was his performances relative to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton that confirmed his quality. Rosberg was out-scored by Hamilton by just 18 points over the course of the season while enduring three times the number of retirements, mostly through no fault of his own, and won the Monaco and British Grands Prix, two of the sport’s most famous races. Always a technically astute driver, the new-for-2014 formula of fuel efficiency, tire management and driving to a moving target rather than letting rip lap after lap will be right down Rosberg’s alley.

10. Tilke can come up trumps
F1’s circuit designer of choice, German Hermann Tilke, has been the target of plenty of criticism for some of the tracks that have come onto the calendar since his first in Malaysia in 1999; while it could be argued much of that was justified after the emergence of such cookie-cutter venues as the soulless Sakhir International Circuit (Bahrain), the unloved street circuit in Valencia and the beautiful but dull Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, Tilke hit the jackpot with the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, which has become one of the most popular stops on the calendar in just two years. Elevation change, sweeping corners, high-speed stretches, superb facilities close to a city center … COTA, as it has become known, has it all. The fans obviously agree, more than 100,000 of them cramming into the circuit for the first two races at the new home for F1 in the ‘States.

Send in the clowns

No, the calendar didn’t say April 1 after all. It said December 10, and that was when it dawned on me: December 10, 2013 will go down as the date when Formula One crossed the line between sport and complete stupidity. In the raft of changes pushed through by the F1 Strategy Group and the Formula One Commission on Monday – some procedural, some sensible, others as vague as vague can be – came the bombshell that the final race of the 2014 season will be granted double-points status, making an absolute mockery of the rest of the season and edging what was once a sport ever-closer to WWE. To have 18 races run under one set of rules and one run under another is completely insane; it compromises the integrity of the season, the 64-year history of the category and potentially the legitimacy of the world champion.

Let’s say, for example, that the fifth and deciding set of next year’s men’s final at Wimbledon decided to award double points where the previous four sets, or 80 per cent of the maximum length of a match, had been played to a different scoring system. Ace, 30-0. Ace, Game Djokovic. Tough luck, Rafa. Reckon the tennis community might be up in arms? Or, for those footballers in the Australian media masquerading as ‘journalists’, let’s change the rules at three-quarter time of the AFL grand final to make all goals worth 12 points rather than six for the finale of the season (insert your own scoring values if you’re a league/union/soccer fan). How would that be received?

In recent years, we’ve had DRS, KERS, grooved tyres, slick tyres, tyres that fall apart, any other number of initiatives to spice up the ‘show’ in F1, as if a category featuring the world’s fastest cars and (mostly) the best drivers needs to be spiced up. Some innovations have worked, some haven’t. It happens. Yes, some seasons are more exciting than others; so go the ebbs and flows of professional sport. For every 2008 or 2010 in F1, you need a 2004 or 2011 to appreciate a thrilling sporting spectacle that grips us to its conclusion. But this is different. DRS, KERS etc – every driver, every team and every car (besides Mark Webber and KERS, which is another topic altogether) had them at every race. Changing the rules for one race when other rules have governed the other 18? Cue the laugh track.

Actually, 2004 might provide some context as to why this change has been shoe-horned through with so little thought to the impact it has on the credibility of the sport. Michael Schumacher won 12 of the first 13 races that year, only a crash at Monaco denying him a baker’s dozen, and after casual fans spent their Sundays yawning on the couch, the response was to insert a regulation for 2005 where one set of tyres had to last for qualifying and the race. Yes, the rule change came in during a year where Fernando Alonso finally broke Schumacher’s five-year red reign at Ferrari in ‘05, but it was a gimmick and didn’t last into 2006.

In 2014, Sebastian Vettel will enter the first race of the season in Australia having won four titles in succession and the past nine Grands Prix on the bounce, and some competition for the German and Red Bull Racing would be welcomed. With a whole new formula set for next season, we had the catalysts for potential change already, and the early days of the new campaign will undoubtedly be dramatic as teams get used to new engines, energy recovery systems, tyres, fuel loads, and for Lotus, an extra shipping container for Pastor Maldonado’s spare parts. There’ll be enough chaos at the start of the season as it is, meaning there’s no need to ruin the end of it with the nonsense that came to light yesterday.

And of all the races to be awarded the “prestige” of double-points … In five previous runnings of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, we’ve had two kinds of races: dull and duller. Yes, 2010 was exciting simply because we had four drivers in with a shot of the title, and being in the pit lane that night just before the start was as tense an experience at a sporting event as I’ve ever had. But the race itself was a snore-fest. As for the rest, you can’t make a case for a single memorable race at the Yas Marina Circuit, which is undeniably pretty under lights but proves the old saying that while you can put lipstick on a pig, it’s a still a pig. How can winning at a track described by Webber as akin to driving around a supermarket car park be worth twice as much as a victory at Monaco, Spa, Suzuka, Monza, Silverstone … other than Bahrain, it’s hard to imagine a circuit layout less deserving of double-points status if we’re having to resort to such a rubbish rule.

While we’re on season finales, is it wrong to wonder if the organisers in Abu Dhabi had been made aware of the implementation of the double-points gimmick and all of the attention it will undoubtedly receive when they negotiated to have the last race come back to Yas Marina after the last two championships wrapped up in Brazil at Interlagos? As a means to extract more cash from a country where it isn’t in short supply, it’s a good one. Should the location of the final race of the season come down to who has the deepest pockets and who is prepared to pay the most to host, Abu Dhabi wins every time.

Yes, December 10 will be forever known as the date Formula One went too far. All that’s left now is for circus music to replace the national anthems on the podium next year for the season finale. Red noses optional.