Wednesday, May 4, 2016

This Week in Motorsport: Formula Fun! Backlog Edition

Formula One World Championship
Round 1
Australian Grand Prix
Sunday, 20 March 2016

Reigning triple World Champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes ('08, '14, & '15) started the first grand prix of the new year from the pole, but the race ended the same way as had the last three races of 2015, with his teammate Nico Rosberg on the top step of the podium. The works "Silver Arrows" both made poor starts, allowing the works Ferraris of quadruple World Champion Sebastian Vettel ('10, '11, '12, & '13) & '07 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen to jump ahead & maintain their lead through the first cycle of pit stops. A mid-race red-flag stoppage, caused by a horrifying shunt involving double World Champion Fernando Alonso ('05 & '06) of McLaren (Honda) & Esteban Gutiérrez of the brand-new, American-based Haas (Ferrari) squad, allowed all the teams to make a penalty-free pit stop. The Mercedes switched to the hardest compound tires while the Ferraris stayed on softer & quicker, though less durable, rubber. That essentially decided the race, as the Mercedes cars could go the distance without an additional pit stops, while the Ferraris were not able to pull enough of a gap not to lose any places when they had to pit. Still & all, the red Ferraris showed that they had significantly closed the gap to the silver Mercedes, a most welcome development after dishwater dull seasons in '14 & '15, during which the only real competition was 'twixt the Mercedes duo.

Romain Grosjean of Hass finished in sixth place, an amazing result for a brand-new team. By contrast, Manor, now in its seventh year of competition, has a single points-paying finish, ninth place at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2014 by the late Jules Bianchi. In five years of racing from 2010-2014, Caterham (previously known as Lotus Racing & then Team Lotus) failed to score a single championship point. So, tip your hats to Haas for making such a brilliant debut.

1st Place: Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
2nd Place: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3rd Place: Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari

Round 2
Bahrain Grand Prix
Sunday, 3 April 2016

Vettel qualified second, but his Ferrari gave up the ghost on the formation lap preceding the start, amidst the great, billowing clouds of white smoke that signal the death of a racing engine. The two works Mercedes were slow off the line for the second consecutive race, resulting in a collision for Hamilton with the Williams (Mercedes) of Valtteri Bottas; a pit stop for repairs dropped Hamilton far down the running order. Rosberg cruised imperiously to the win, while Grosjean bettered his impressive Australia performance by finishing fifth. The two points-scoring finishes were the best result for a new Constructor in F1 since 1973. Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull (T.A.G. Heuer*) was Mr. Consistency, finishing fourth for the second consecutive grand prix.

Rosberg's second consecutive win was his fifth in a row dating back to the previous season, drawing his close to some pretty rarefied air in the F1 history books. Räikkönen's sour expression on the podium, when on any step other than the victor's stand, is an always welcome reminder that second place is the first loser. For some men, finishing on the podium is enough to induce spontaneous eruptions of joy, but not so for the hard-drinking Finn nicknamed "the Iceman." I salute Kimi's high standards.

1st Place: Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
2nd Place: Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari
3rd Place: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Round 3
Chinese Grand Prix
Sunday, 17 April 2016

It seemed as if almost every car in the field was involved in a shunt on lap one. Hamilton crashed with Felipe Nasr of Sauber (Ferrari), the two works Ferraris of Vettel & Räikkönen collided, & the Lord only knows how Grosjean smashed his car's front wing; four cars pitted after that first lap for new front nose/wings. Ricciardo, starting from the front row ahead of the Ferraris, jumped Rosberg, but suffered a catastrophic tire failure on lap three, forcing the Red Bull to pit. The truly amazing thing, after multiple cars failed to start in both Australia & Bahrain & the race-ending shunts seen in those first two grands prix, is that every single car, all twenty-two in the field, finished the Chinese Grand Prix.

Daniil Kvyat of Red Bull (T.A.G. Heuer) had a brilliant race for the first non-Mercedes, non-Ferrari podium finish of 2016. Kvyat lead Vettel, the man he replaced at red Bull, for a time, but in the end the Ferrari's new tires made short work of the Russian's bid for second place. Hamilton started the race from the back of the grid due to a penalty for a gearbox change & damaged the crucial undertray of his Mercedes in that first-lap collision; he drove a blistering pace in a wounded car to finish seventh, ceding further ground to Rosberg in the Drivers' Championship.

Rosberg's third consecutive victory of the year & sixth consecutive dating back to last season gives him more than a race-win's margin over Hamilton, so even if Rosberg didn't score in the next face & Hamilton won, Rosberg will still lead the Drivers' stakes. Ricciardo earned his third fourth-place finish, a perfect three for three on the year; that consistency has earned him third in the standings, better than any of this race finishes.

1st Place: Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
2nd Place: Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
3rd Place: Daniil Kvyat, Red Bull (T.A.G. Heuer)

Round 4
Russian Grand Prix
Sunday, 1 May 2016

Not once, but twice on the opening lap did Kvyat ram his Red Bull into the rear of Vettel's Ferrari, sending the red car spinning into the wall, ending Vettel's race. 'Twas Vettel's second D.N.F. (Did Not Finish) of the young season; he has two podiums & two D.N.F.s, which are killing his already slim chances in the Drivers' Championship & scuppering Ferrari's ambitions in the Constructors' Championship. Kvyat was penalized with a ten-second stop-&-hold penalty, but even as a Red Bull partisan I do not think that is punitive enough, given the recklessness he displayed. Back in 2012, Romain Grosjean was involved in a number of crashes, the most dangerous of which happened at Spa-Francorchamps. He was given a one-race ban, & has been a different driver ever since. It was precisely the wake-up call he needed to start displaying his true talent. Kvyat, young & brash, needs just such a lesson, before he becomes the new Pastor Maldonado (which, by the way, is the meanest thing I can say about any race-car driver).

Hamilton had a technical problem in qualifying, which meant he started tenth on the grid, with Rosberg on the pole. Rosberg lead from flag to flag, scoring the "Grand Slam": pole position, fastest lap, all laps lead, & race victory. Sadly, though the Ferraris have shown some pace, they have also proven mechanically unreliable & crash-prone, so the 2016 F1 World Championships are shaping up to be as humdrum & boring as the 2014 & 2015 editions. There is a dearth of competition, especially with Hamilton's repeated breakdowns depriving the audience of even the unsatisfying spectacle of a duel 'twixt the Silver Arrows; the rest of the field are simply racing for third place, a sorry state of affairs.

1st Place: Nico Rosberg, Mercedes
2nd Place: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3rd Place: Kimi Räikkönen, Ferrari

*Renault engines powered Red Bull's superlative chassis during the team's four consecutive World Constructors' Championships ('10, '11, '12, & '13). But Renault badly missed the mark when the new hybrid-electric, turbocharged "power units" were introduced in 2014 & the Red Bulls struggled for pace. With even more ground lost to the competition in 2015, the once all-conquering Red Bull/Renault partnership fractured acrimoniously. Red Bull tried to pull out of their contract with Renault, but Mercedes & Ferrari were unwilling to supply their engines to such an accomplished chassis-builder; with Honda amidst its own struggles not yet willing to supply a second team, there was for a time great concern that Red Bull would be left without an engine & thus forced to pull out of the sport. In the end, Red Bull & Renault reached an agreement whereby Renault's engines would be re-badged T.A.G. Heuer, the Swiss watch company. Those are still Renault power units, but Red Bull's engineers now have greater freedom to tinker.

Renault have also re-entered the sport as a constructor, having re-purchased the Enstone-based squad that over its long, championship-winning history has been known as Benetton, Renault, & Lotus, & is now once again the Renault works team. The "T.A.G. Heuer"-powered Red Bulls are significantly faster than the works Renaults.

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