Saturday, 1 November 2008

Brazilian Grand Prix Qualifying: Massa On Pole For Title Showdown

Felipe Massa will start the Brazilian Grand Prix, the most important race of his life, from pole position after a brilliant performance at his beloved Interlagos circuit. He knows that to stand a realistic chance of winning the Driver's Championship he needs to win the race tomorrow, and he has given himself the best possible chance. Lewis Hamilton will have to defend his seven point lead from 4th place, and possibly on a different strategy to the Ferraris. Toyota's Jarno Trulli put in an incredible performance to take a surprise second place ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

The first of the three mini-sessions saw few problems or dramas for the major players. Massa, Raikkonen and Hamilton filled the top three spots and were all very close. Alonso showed the pace of the Renault with fourth. Kovalainen didn't get the most out of the McLaren and only managed 8th place, but was easily through regardless. At the wrong end of the grid the Force Indias struggled as expected and propped up the time sheets. Both Williams cars looked extremely poor despite previously looking reasonably strong all weekend long, and both went out along with Button who saw his team mate Barrichello just squeeze through into the final session.

The second session was a little more interesting than the first. For the first ten minutes or so everything went like clockwork. Raikkonen, Massa and Hamilton all looked supremely quick and held the top three places. Then all of a sudden some more un-fancied drivers started putting up some stunning lap times. We shouldn't be too surprised to see Kovalainen so quick given the machinery under him, but Vettel produced a great lap out of nowhere, as did Glock. Suddenly the top two teams felt a little bit of heat and were forced to send their drivers out again just in case.

In the end both Ferraris made it through, but Raikkonen in particular was flying a little too close to the wind for comfort with P6. Ferrari need a big performance from him in terms of the two titles, and he will also want a good showing to reclaim third place in the title race. His chances of that third place were aided somewhat by the poor performance of Robert Kubica who could only manage 12th fastest. It's a shame to see Kubica losing his way a little at the end of such a great season for him. His 2008 season looks to be ending with a bit of a whimper.

The third session was what everyone was really waiting for though, and it didn't disappoint. Massa was the first of the major players out on track for the opening salvoes of Q3 and he put in a fantastic first lap. 1:12.4 is a tidy lap in any conditions, but to do it with race fuel is very impressive. Raikkonen couldn't match his team mate, and nor could any one else. Hamilton had a very untidy first lap. He perhaps went out a little to fast on his outlap and over-cooked his tyres a tad. He almost lost the back end a couple of times throughout the lap, but kept it on the black stuff to set something of a disappointing lap.

The second and final hotlaps saw Massa again on great form. He managed to go marginally faster second time around, and ended up significantly faster than anyone else out there. Although we know Massa loves this race-track, we have to think that Massa is lighter on fuel considering he ended up almost half a second faster than his team mate Kimi. Hamilton improved significantly, but it wasn't enough to quite trouble the Ferraris. He was just five thousandths of a second behind Raikkonen, and it looked as though he would be sitting behind an all Ferrari front row. Both McLarens seemed to struggle in the middle sector and were significantly slower there than all the others drivers around them, with Kovalainen finishing just behind Hamilton.

When Alonso failed to match either the McLarens or Ferraris it looked for all the world as though it would be two Ferraris followed by two McLarens on the grid. Then out of nowhere Jarno Trulli put in an amazing lap to split the Ferraris and take second place! Trulli is known as a qualifying specialist, but I don't think even the most hardened Trulli fan would have expected this result. He must surely be VERY light on fuel, but Trulli's presence puts an interesting and unexpected element into the mix for tomorrow's title decider.

The other potential wild-card factor is the position of Fernando Alonso sitting in sixth, right behind his bitter rival Hamilton. Alonso has made no secret of the fact that he would dearly love to see Hamilton and his former employers fail tomorrow, and Hamilton certainly will not relish having the Spaniard right on his gearbox going into the first two turns.

If everyone finishes in the same place they start the race, Hamilton will be champion. However, he would dearly love to have been starting up on the front row. Both McLaren drivers have hinted that perhaps they are on a different strategy to those infront of him after seeing the pace of particularly Massa and Trulli. Could strategy be the deciding factor in the World Title? There is also the issue of tyre degradation. The option tyres Bridgestone have brought have been graining up badly in practice, and tyre management could well be a key factor. Of course, the other major factor may be the weather. Rain is still forecast for tomorrow, and when the rain falls anything can happen.

Provisional Starting Grid

1. Massa
2. Trulli
3. Raikkonen
4. Hamilton
5. Kovalainen
6. Alonso
7. Vettel
8. Heidfeld
9. Bourdais
10. Glock
11. Piquet
12. Webber
13. Kubica
14. Coulthard
15. Barrichello
16. Nakajima
17. Button
18. Rosberg
19. Fisichella
20. Sutil

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Friday, 31 October 2008

Brazilian Grand Prix: Massa lays down the benchmark in first practice

The two title protagonists both kicked off their weekends with impressive showings in Friday's first practice sessions. The closing minutes of the session saw Massa pip Hamilton to first place in a relatively quiet session that had been dominated by Hamilton up until that point.

The session began with ominous looking grey clouds around the Sao Paulo circuit, and a third of the way through the session rain did begin to fall. However, the rain wasn't more than a light shower and although it made conditions slippery (Raikkonen was the first man to spin this weekend) the conditions weren't too bad. All drivers though seemed somewhat cautious for much of the session, with very limited running for the first half an hour or so. Indeed, Kimi Raikkonen sat in the pits for over an hour before coming out to set a time. It didn't hold him back too much though, as he ended up setting third fastest time just a fraction slower than Hamilton.

So first blood went to Massa then, though I suspect Hamilton will be more than happy to follow Massa home as closely as that all weekend long. Both drivers look strong, and certainly Hamilton still looks odds on favourite to take the title on this form...

First Practice Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:12.305 24 laps
02 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:12.495 23 laps
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:12.507 18 laps
04 R. Kubica BMW 1:12.874 24 laps
05 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:12.925 20 laps
06 F. Alonso Renault 1:13.061 25 laps
07 M. Webber Red Bull 1:13.298 24 laps
08 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:13.378 39 laps
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:13.426 28 laps
10 T. Glock Toyota 1:13.466 33 laps
11 J. Trulli Toyota 1:13.600 24 laps
12 N. Rosberg Williams 1:13.621 23 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:13.649 30 laps
14 R. Barrichello Honda 1:13.676 28 laps
15 J. Button Honda 1:13.766 13 laps
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:13.806 24 laps
17 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:13.836 30 laps
18 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:13.861 19 laps
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:14.704 21 laps
20 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:14.821 21 laps
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Brazilian Grand Prix: Preview

So, this is it. After a year dogged by the usual fair share of self-inflicted controversy in which occasionally some racing broke out, some of it sensationally good and some just plain sensational, it all boils down to this. Two men and two teams with the fate of the championships in their hands. 71 laps of Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit to decide that fate.

Hamilton heads into the weekend with the title tantalisingly close to his grasp. Just as with last year's dramatic season finale, the task in front of him seems all too easy. But we all know what happened 12 months ago, and Hamilton will surely have those thoughts weighing heavily on his mind throughout the weekend. He only has to finish in 5th place and the title will be his regardless of other results, but anything can happen in motor racing, and this seemingly simplistic task could easily be taken out of his hands by something like a mechanical failure or puncture. Besides, we all know Hamilton is a fiercely competitive racer and not the sort to settle for 5th place, so there is always the potential for fireworks.

By contrast, Felipe Massa will be feeling comparatively little pressure. With the odds against him he knows that all he has to do is go out in front of his home fans and try to win the race. Nobody will criticise him if he fails to win the title, and if he DOES win the title the scenes of celebration will be unprecedented for the home town hero. He has nothing to lose, whereas Hamilton potentially has it all to lose.

Ferrari are comfortably ahead in the constructor's championship, and anything other than a complete disaster for Ferrari will see them claim their second WCC in a row. Realistically, McLaren will be pinning all their hopes of glory on Hamilton taking the WDC. But they will still be harbouring dreams of snatching both titles from under the noses of their arch rivals, and will be demanding a much improved showing from Heikki Kovalainen if they are to spring a surprise. Indeed, both Finnish drivers could end up being key players in both titles if team tactics come into play, although it is a role that neither will particularly relish after both having such a torrid season.

The weather has been a massive factor this season, with thrilling races at both Monaco and Silverstone and a dramatic qualifying session at Monza springing to mind. I don't think I can remember a season in which the weather has played a role so often, and the season's finale doesn't look like it's going to disappoint. Early weather predictions suggests that there will be rain at regular intervals throughout the weekend, adding further spice to the championship mix. When the rain has fallen it has been Hamilton who has been the standout driver of the field, although he and his team did make a mistake with tyre choices in the rain of Monza qualifying. Massa has struggled badly in the past with rain, particularly his humiliating experience at Silverstone this year.

You would think that on past history the rain would favour Hamilton, but all sort of strange things can happen in the wet. None more so than at Interlagos in 2003. That race was controversially started under safety car conditions such was the severity of the rain. Then an enormous crash caused by a then naive and reckless Fernando Alonso brought about a red flag. Everyone assumed Raikkonen had deservedly won the race, but that honour instead went on count back to Jordan's Giancarlo Fisichella because he was last to pit, despite the fact that his car was a flaming mess at the side of the road by the time the red flag came out! Goes to show that anything can happen when the heavens open...

There has been talk in the gutter press about the potential of Massa or Ferrari attempting to run Hamilton off the road or vice-versa, much of it bizarrely instigated by Eddie Jordan. However, both drivers have been quick to point out that although they will be racing as hard as ever, neither driver would want to be tarnished by using any kind of underhand tactics to win the title. And quite right too.

Regardless of which way the championship is concluded, there is sure to be an incredible story and incredible scenes at the chequered flag. Either we will have the most talked about and most hyped man in motor sport becoming the youngest F1 champion in history, or we will have the underdog from Brazil winning the title on his home circuit, sparking off incredible scenes from the passionate Brazilian fans. Either way, it could be epic...
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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Chinese Grand Prix: Hamilton Edges Closer To Title With Supreme Performance

Lewis Hamilton edged closer to winning the 2008 Formula One World Driver's Championship with a flawless performance in the Chinese Grand Prix. From the very first practice session on Friday morning Hamilton was a class apart from the rest of the field this weekend, and rounded off a superb weekend with a disciplined performance from start to finish in the Grand Prix. The title race is still very much alive however, as Felipe Massa claimed second place after being gifted the place by his team mate Raikkonen. It wasn't a great race, and in truth was pretty uneventful, but that is exactly what the doctor ordered for Hamilton after the turbulence of Japan last week, and his nightmare race here last year.

With the threat of rain seemingly dissipated by the start of the race the conditions looked perfect for racing. Hamilton was surrounded by threats on the grid from two Ferraris and a Renault, but he looked totally calm and relaxed as he prepared for the race, as he has looked all weekend. The same couldn't quite be said for Felipe Massa who has looked a bit on edge all weekend, particularly since his disappointing showing in qualifying.

After all the drama and controversy of the opening laps in Japan many were predicting something of the same here. It wasn't to be though, as Hamilton got an inch perfect start and led fairly comfortably going into the tricky first corner. The two Ferraris were in close company but not close enough to attempt any kind of move. Birthday boy Heikki Kovalainen got a good start and was able to squeeze around the outside of Fernando Alonso through turns one and two. This was exactly what was required of Kovalainen after his poor showing in qualifying yesterday, but he couldn't keep it up. Alonso was able to power past again down the back straight after a small mistake from Heikki in the previous corner. There was clearly no sign of Renault's supposed horse power deficit here. The only real drama at the start was a coming together between Trulli and Bourdais, which resulted in Trulli's retirement due to extensive damage to his side-pod.

During the first stint Hamilton was able to consolidate his lead at a rate of one or two tenths of a second per lap consistently. It was perfect race driving from Hamilton; every lap in the first stint was faster than the preceding one, eventually resulting in the fastest lap of the race on lap 13. The Ferraris had no answer to McLaren's pace as Raikkonen dropped ever further back from Hamilton, and Massa fell consistently behind Kimi. Alonso and Kovalainen had no answer to the pace of the top three.

The main players all came in to pit around the same time showing that there was no advantage for anyone in terms of fuel loads. There were a few back markers to contend with as they emerged from the pits, in particular Giancarlo Fisichella was being a bit of a pain for the leaders. Raikkonen especially lost time behind the veteran Italian, and made his feelings very clear with an uncharacteristic hand gesture to the Force India driver as he eventually made it past. It was pretty un-professional driving from Fisi, and I'm not entirely sure what he was hoping to prove or gain, but in the end I don't think it made any difference to the result.

The only moment of significant drama in this phase of the race was a right front puncture for Heikki Kovalainen. It just about summed up the way his season has gone. Just about everything that could go wrong HAS gone wrong. After an extremely rare engine failure last race, his puncture relegated him to the back of the field. Just to compound his miserable birthday, he was then forced to retire with a brake failure. This was bad news for McLaren in terms of the constructor's championship, but they will be thankful that at least the bad luck was befalling Kovalainen and not their title challenger Hamilton.

Raikkonen was starting to close on Hamilton by the end of the second stint, but he was nowhere near close enough to challenge for the victory. Inevitably, after the second and final round of pit stops Raikkonen dropped off the pace to allow Massa to close and pass him for second place and a vital two extra points. It's not great to see from a racing perspective, but it is the only sensible decision in terms of the title race. Also, Raikkonen was not in a position to complain after he won the title last year in Brazil due in no small part to Massa yielding to him in the closing stages. Both Ferrari drivers looked completely embarrassed by the whole experience in the post-race press conference; Massa clearly knew that he was out classed by Raikkonen all day long, but will be grateful for the points gifted to him. Whether that kind of behaviour is strictly legal or not is up for debate, but you won't see McLaren protesting as they may need to do something similar in Brazil next race.

From then on it was plain sailing to the finish for the top drivers. Hamilton clearly eased off the pace knowing that the engine he used today needs to last him for the full weekend in Brazil. Massa and Raikkonen were too far back to challenge Hamilton so just cruised to the finish to end what was in truth a pretty dull Chinese Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso took fourth place with a decent performance, but was unable to get close to the podium places. Heidfeld and Kubica came next, with Kubica able to make up several places due to his extremely long first stint. It wasn't enough to stop his title dream disappearing for at least another year though. He will be disappointed with his own performance, particularly in qualifying, and it is a shame to see his title challenge end with a bit of whimper. However, even if he had performed to the best of his ability here he would not have had an answer to the pace of Hamilton in the McLaren. Glock and Piquet rounded out the points finishers, Glock in particular having a good race today after a poor qualifying yesterday.

So going into the final race of the 2008 season Lewis Hamilton holds a seven point lead over Felipe Massa. This is exactly the same lead he held over Alonso going into Brazil last year, so the Championship is by no means a foregone conclusion yet. However, if McLaren and Hamilton show the same kind of pace, consistency and crucially maturity that they showed here, then the title should be his. Hamilton can afford to let Massa win his home Grand Prix and still be able to wrap up the title with a top 5 finish. Today Hamilton looked every bit the World Champion in waiting, and Ferrari and Massa had absolutely no answer to his dominance.

Race Result

1. Hamilton
2. Massa
3. Raikkonen
4. Alonso
5. Heidfeld
6. Kubica
7. Glock
8. Piquet
9. Vettel
10. Coulthard
11. Barrichello
12. Nakajima
13. Bourdais
14. Webber
15. Rosberg
16. Button
17. Fisichella
ret Kovalainen
ret Sutil
ret Trulli
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Saturday, 18 October 2008

Chinese Grand Prix: Hamilton On Pole For His Date With Destiny

Lewis Hamilton will start what may be the most important race of his young career from pole position after a completely dominant performance in today's qualifying session. Just as in Fuji last week he will have Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen for company alongside him on the front row, setting up a possible repeat of last Sunday's first corner drama. Felipe Massa will start from third place with Fernando Alonso pipping Kovalainen for fourth with another excellent showing. The other title contender Robert Kubica saw his chances all but vanish with a poor performance, meaning he will start the race tomorrow from eleventh place.

The conditions for qualifying were about as perfect as you could imagine; warm but not too hot, with no rain or even a breath of wind around the circuit. There would be no excuses for poor performances. The first session saw Lewis Hamilton continue his fine form from Friday's practice sessions by finishing in first place by a considerable margin. Of course, where it really mattered was at the other end of the field. After Webber's spectacular engine blow-out in morning practice Red Bull were hoping for a big performance from David Coulthard. It didn't come unfortunately, as he was held up a little by Nick Heidfeld on his final flying lap and failed to make it through to Q2. He will start his penultimate Grand Prix from 16th place. Nakajima, Button, Sutil and Fisichella make up the final four positions on the grid.

The second session saw Hamilton again dominate proceedings at the top of the time sheets. His first run on the option tyre saw him set the only lap of the weekend under 1:35s, and comfortably ahead of his rivals. However, the big story of Q2 was the nightmare that Robert Kubica was having. He needs a big result from this Grand Prix if he is to have any chance of upsetting the odds and winning the Championship, but he will find it hard now after he could only manage twelfth fastest in the session. He complained of understeer problems earlier in the session, and he looked completely out of sorts throughout the session. His poor performance was compounded by the fact that his team mate Heidfeld beat him comfortably for one of the first times this season. Rosberg, Barrichello, Glock and Piquet also dropped out at this stage.

Going into the final session it looked as though Hamilton was all but guaranteed a pole position place. It wasn't to be as simple as that though, as after the first set of hotlaps Hamilton was only sitting in fifth place. Although the cameras didn't pick it up Hamilton later confessed that he made a big mistake in turn eight which lost him over six tenths of a second. Kovalainen and Raikkonen were leading the way at the top; were they being run very light as part of a strategic game by their team? Raikkonen was the first of the main men to go out for his final lap, and he was setting green sectors throughout the lap. He was comfortably top by the end of his lap, and had set down a tough bench mark for the others to match. Hamilton was the only man up to the challenge, and he put together a sensational lap to take pole position by a full three tenths of a second. Massa couldn't match either his title rival or his team mate as he ended up in third place. Alonso put in a superb lap out of nowhere to take fourth place. Kovalainen was the last of the main contenders out there, but yet again he failed to live up to McLaren's expectations as a poor lap meant he could only manage fifth fastest.

So going into the race tomorrow Lewis Hamilton will feel confident with his brilliant performance, but will be surrounded by people out to spoil his party. Both Ferraris and Alonso have made no secret about their desire to see Hamilton suffer yet another disappointment, and Hamilton really needed his team mate up alongside him for support. It was another sad chapter in the huge let down that has been Heikki Kovalainen's first season at McLaren. He should have been at least on the second row if not the first, but he choked when it mattered most. With the possibility of thunderstorms for tomorrow's race, if Hamilton is to secure his first world championship it most certainly won't be easy. It could well be a classic...

Qualifying Result

1. Hamilton
2. Raikkonen
3. Massa
4. Alonso
5. Kovalainen
6. Webber (+ 10 place grid penalty)
7. Heidfeld
8. Vettel
9. Trulli
10. Bourdais
11. Piquet
12. Kubica
13. Glock
14. Barrichello
15. Rosberg
16. Coulthard
17. Nakajima
18. Button
19. Sutil
20. Fisichella
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Friday, 17 October 2008

Chinese Grand Prix: Friday Practice Sessions

Just 5 days after the dramatic and hugely controversial Japanese Grand Prix, it's back to business for the Formula One teams and drivers. Much of the pre-race press conference schedule has been dominated by questions over the baffling decisions of the race stewards in Japan, and over the driving style of a certain Lewis Hamilton. But all the talking will stop and all drivers will have to attempt to put those thoughts to the back of their minds once the track action begins in earnest in Shanghai.

This race was of course the scene of the beginning of the demise of McLaren's title aspirations last season, when Hamilton and his crew were so busy trying to out smart their team mates they made a bad call on the tyre strategy and Hamilton ended up in a gravel trap. This gifted a vital ten points to eventual champion Kimi Raikkonen, a man who McLaren clearly weren't at all concerned about at the time. And boy did they live to regret that mistake!

Whether the track will turn out to be a recurring nightmare for Hamilton remains to be seen, but going into the race he still maintains a 5 point lead in the championship despite his trials and tribulations in Japan, and has a very real chance of being able to clinch the WDC this weekend if all goes his way. His rival Massa knows that ideally he needs to win and see his team mate take second if he is to maximise his chances of winning the title at his home race in Brazil in a couple of weeks' time. Outside bet Robert Kubica knows that he needs both rival drivers to have another shocker like in Japan if he still wants a fighting chance going into the season finale.

The first practice session kicked off in subdued fashion, with the track remaining quiet for much of the first half hour. Eventually the action begun with Kimi Raikkonen being the first of the major players out to set a time. From that moment on it was a case of Ferrari and McLaren trading blows throughout the session. Kovalainen knocked Raikkonen off top spot, before Felipe Massa signaled his intent by going fastest. Hamilton had a minor off early in the session but soon recovered to go top. Everybody improved slightly, most notably Hamilton who knocked a full four tenths off his early benchmark to finish the session on top and the only man to break into the 1:35s.

The BMWs, Renaults and Toro Rossos fought it out to be best of the rest, but in truth were quite a distance away from the two leading teams. There were no surprises really throughout the field, aside maybe from Jenson Button finishing a respectable 12th place for Honda after a pretty awful weekend at their home Grand Prix last weekend.

Practice One Times

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:35.630 23 laps
02 F. Massa Ferrari 1:36.020 24 laps
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:36.052 23 laps
04 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:36.103 21 laps
05 R. Kubica BMW 1:36.507 25 laps
06 F. Alonso Renault 1:36.661 24 laps
07 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:37.040 23 laps
08 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.070 32 laps
09 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:37.180 30 laps
10 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.278 25 laps
11 M. Webber Red Bull 1:37.491 25 laps
12 J. Button Honda 1:37.619 25 laps
13 K. Nakajima Williams 1:37.630 23 laps
14 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:37.638 22 laps
15 N. Rosberg Williams 1:37.638 26 laps
16 T. Glock Toyota 1:37.664 29 laps
17 R. Barrichello Honda 1:37.827 28 laps
18 J. Trulli Toyota 1:38.219 24 laps
19 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:38.285 25 laps
20 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:38.479 26 laps

The second session again saw Lewis Hamilton top of the pile, as he remained the only man to dip under 1:36 at the end of the first day. The order behind Hamilton was somewhat different however, as Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet underlined Renault's late season rally by taking second and third places. Ferrari had a much quieter session this time out finishing down in sixth and eighth place.

The pace was generally a little slower all round this session as the teams focussed on long run simulations for the race on Sunday. The times seemed a lot closer as well this session, with 2nd place down to 16th being separated by less than a second. Hamilton was ahead at the front on his own, and the Force Indias and Hondas were cut adrift at the bottom, someway short of any kind of competitive pace.

Practice Two Times

01 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:35.750 33 laps
02 F. Alonso Renault 1:36.024 36 laps
03 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:36.094 38 laps
04 J. Trulli Toyota 1:36.159 32 laps
05 M. Webber Red Bull 1:36.375 38 laps
06 F. Massa Ferrari 1:36.480 31 laps
07 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:36.529 32 laps
08 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:36.542 34 laps
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:36.553 38 laps
10 N. Rosberg Williams 1:36.556 33 laps
11 T. Glock Toyota 1:36.615 33 laps
12 R. Kubica BMW 1:36.775 37 laps
13 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:36.797 33 laps
14 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:36.808 36 laps
15 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:36.925 38 laps
16 K. Nakajima Williams 1:36.975 31 laps
17 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:37.473 38 laps
18 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:37.617 33 laps
19 J. Button Honda 1:37.800 37 laps
20 R. Barrichello Honda 1:37.904 36 laps

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Sunday, 12 October 2008

Japanese Grand Prix: Two Out Of Two For Brilliant Alonso

Fernando Alonso sensationally made it two race wins in a row for his Renault team with a superb performance at the Fuji Speedway. The former champion showed title contenders Hamilton and Massa the way to keep your head under pressure, as the two young pretenders to the throne both had disastrous races with Massa collecting a single point and Hamilton ending up empty handed. Robert Kubica took a hard-fought and thoroughly deserved second place ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

The start was predicted to be all important, but few would have predicted we'd get the kind of fireworks that resulted. The key factor that started it all off was Hamilton getting a poor start off the line. Within 100 yards Raikkonen was ahead of him, and Kovalainen was right alongside him with Massa in close attendance. Going into the first corner Hamilton decided to gamble and threw his car up the inside of Kimi's Ferrari, and ended up throwing the race on its head. He locked up both tyres and ran wide and off the track, forcing the two Ferraris and a few others to run wide and lose masses of time. This was great news for the likes of Alonso and Kubica who were able to avoid the mayhem in front of them and get ahead of the Ferraris and McLarens. Further down the field there was contact involving David Coulthard in the pack, and although it didn't knock him directly, his right rear suspension was broken and he was a passenger as he flew off the track and hard into the safety barriers.

Hamilton's front tyres were both badly flat-spotted, but that didn't stop him being able to put a move on Felipe Massa, as the Brazilian out braked himself mid way through the lap. Hamilton took the place in routine fashion, but Massa decided to fight back immediately. He did this though by leaving the race circuit on the inside, bouncing on the mud and bouncing straight into the side of Hamilton. A rash and very poor piece of driving from Massa. Getting too hot into a corner and out braking yourself is one thing; driving straight off the race track and into another driver to try and win a place back is quite another, and it was to cost him dearly. Hamilton was spun 180 degrees, and had no choice but to sit and wait for the entire field to pass him before he could spin back around and rejoin. His car was damaged, and his race was more or less in tatters already. Things got even worse when he was given a drive-through penalty for his part in the first corner melee. The only sugaring of the pill was that his big rival Massa was penalised for the move that spun Hamilton around.

So far, neither driver was doing much to show their world championship credentials.

Out front Kubica, Alonso and Kovalainen looked the favourites to take the victory, with Raikkonen recovering well and looking dangerous. Kovalainen was soon out of the equation though, as a very rare Mercedes engine failure ended his race prematurely as things seemed to be going from bad to worse for McLaren. Jarno Trulli was also looking in a strong position, much to the delight of the home fans, although fellow Toyota driver Timo Glock was unlucky to see his race ended with reliability problems after looking so strong all weekend.

At the first round of pit stops Kubica surrendered the lead to Alonso by taking on a few laps more fuel, and it was a strategic decision which may have cost him the race. Alonso was out in the lead with clear air, and he was where he feels he belongs and where he clearly thrives. The former double world champion showed all his class as he started firing in lap after lap of ruthlessly consistent pace, all the while edging away from Kubica. This was classic Alonso, and it was a race winning second stint.

Massa and Hamilton were both trying their best to fight their way through the field in the hope of securing a small amount of points. Massa struggled initially to make it past the slowest man on the track Jenson Button, but eventually found his feet and started putting in some good laps. By the end of his second stint he had made it up into the points positions ahead of Mark Webber, but Webber was on an ambitious one-stop strategy so Massa would have to pass him again if he wanted any points.

At the front Raikkonen was looking threatening for the win and was lapping extremely quickly. Nelson Piquet, who was having an excellent race in what has been a largely forgettable season, was now out of contention for a podium position down in fourth ahead of Trulli, Vettel and Bourdais. Sebastien Bourdais was having an eventful yet strong race. His right front tyre got stuck during his first stop which cost him valuable time, and then leaving the pits after his final stop he emerged alongside Felipe Massa. The Ferrari driver wrecklessly attempted a move around the outside of turn one, and while Bourdais held his rightful line Massa clipped him and spun himself around. The move is to be investigated by the stewards after the race and may yet yield some kind of penalty for Massa, although a slap of the wrists seems the most likely outcome.

The key battle out on track was between the two men vying for the third place position in the World Championship, and for second place in the race. Raikkonen had what looked like the faster car and closed onto the back of Kubica with ease. However, the young pole is made of stern stuff and was not willing to give up his position without a fierce fight. Down the epically long pit straight Kimi was able to slipstream up behind Kubica time and time again, but the BMW driver showed some truly superb defensive driving skills to fend off every attack from the much faster Raikkonen. It was a great battle, and one deservedly won by Kubica when Raikkonen was forced to back off and settle for third as his tyres began to degrade badly.

Tyres were to play a large part in the end of Felipe Massa's race too. After dispatching Heidfeld he now had Mark Webber's Red Bull between him and a crucial World Championship point. Webber though had been out on his soft tyres for pretty much half the race due to his one-stop strategy, and the on-board footage showed that his tyres were shot to pieces. Massa closed up to the Red Bull and looked like he should be able to cruise past with ease. Webber wasn't giving up his point without a fight though, and went defensive down the home straight. Massa decided to go down the inside, and in doing so looked as though he actually left the race circuit altogether and passed Webber whilst in the pit lane exit area. It seemed unnecessarily risky from Massa, who had such a speed advantage he could have taken his time and picked Webber off at will. This didn't seem to be a race where common sense and restraint had any place.

Except perhaps for Fernando Alonso, who due to his brilliant second stint and due to the battle between Kubica and Raikkonen had built himself such a lead he was able to cruise to his second victory in succession. It's a truly remarkable result for him and for the Renault team with Piquet in fourth place. A couple of months ago if anyone had suggested Renault were capable of winning two races consecutively they would have been laughed out of town, probably even by Alonso himself. Although there was an element of luck in both races in terms of the other drivers shooting themselves in the foot, they were both brilliant performances from Alonso. Renault will be now be desperate to hold onto him for next season. I wonder if Ferrari or BMW are kicking themselves for not pursuing his signature now that Alonso is showing himself to be a true class act?

With Hamilton ending up empty handed and full of regret for his moment of madness at the start and Massa collecting just one point, the lead at the top has been cut down to just 6 points with two races remaining. Remarkably, it also means that Robert Kubica is now just 12 points behind Hamilton and still with an outside chance of winning the title! With two races to go both Hamilton and Massa will need to regroup and get their heads back together quickly. Any more wrecklessness and foolishness in China and Brazil could see their title chances ruined. With a 6 point lead Hamilton in particular needs to learn that discretion is the better part of valour. Fortune does not always favour the brave.

Provisional Race Result

1. Alonso
2. Kubica
3. Raikkonen
4. Piquet
5. Trulli
6. Bourdais
7. Vettel
8. Massa
9. Webber
10. Heidfeld
11. Rosberg
12. Hamilton
13. Barrichello
14. Button
15. Nakajima
ret Fisicehlla
ret Kovalainen
ret Sutil
ret Glock
ret Coulthard

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