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
Read more!

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

Read more!

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

Read more!