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Saturday, March 8, 2008

F1 2008: Where they stand

Can the 2008 season possibly be as close-fought and competitive as last year? Will anyone step up to challenge Ferrari and McLaren at the front of the field?

To kick off our new season preview features, expert analyst Mark Hughes looks at how the field is shaping up for the 2008 championship ahead of next weekend's season-opener in Australia.

We've only got pre-season testing to guide us, and because that cannot reveal the full picture there are sure to be surprises in store.

But as a generalisation we can say the season seems set to be something of a re-run of 2007 in terms of who the main players are.

The title contenders

Ferrari and McLaren have been very closely matched through the winter and appear to have a significant performance margin over a very tightly bunched upper midfield pack.

Ferrari has perhaps just shaded McLaren during the winter months but in the final tests at Barcelona the silver car was, if anything, even quicker than the red one over a single timed lap. But over a race stint simulation the Ferrari appeared still to have a small edge.

Ferrari, then, begin the season as the logical title favourites.

They have had a more serene preparation to the year than McLaren as a hangover from the espionage case, and Kimi Raikkonen now has the full benefits of continuity he didn't have last year – when he still managed to win it.

He's fully adapted now to the Bridgestone tyres, to the Ferrari systems and to his relationship with race engineer Chris Dyer. He appears happy and relaxed in the environment Ferrari provides and all the ingredients appear to be there for a devastating Kimi season.

He will again face competition from team-mate Felipe Massa but somehow I doubt it will be as strong a challenge as in '07 – not because Felipe will be less effective, but because I see Kimi as taking his superbly strong second half of '07 as the starting point for '08.

A hierarchy is beginning to form there and Kimi is at the top of it.

It says much for the strength of resource and character of McLaren-Mercedes that they appear to have retained much of their competitiveness despite their turbulent off-track background.

Lewis Hamilton may not have been giving the team as clear and focused a technical direction as Fernando Alonso did last year, which may yet prove to be a problem.

But as things stand on the eve of the season, the McLaren is nip-and-tuck as fast as the Ferrari, which makes the prospect of the dynamic Hamilton going up against the Maranello cars especially thrilling.

Heikki Kovalainen has been every bit as fast as Lewis during the winter and will undoubtedly emerge as a major star this year.

Now he has the pressure of being in a front-running car with a devastatingly fast team-mate, we'll get a better idea of his ultimate level.

Asking him to shade Hamilton, especially in his first season with the team, is not impossible, but very unlikely.

Who is best of the rest?

There is no clear best of the rest. BMW, which occupied this spot throughout '07, is maybe marginally still the fastest of this sub-group.

But doubts remain over the new F1.08's effectiveness over a race stint. Both Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld have reported the car to feel twitchy and inconsistent.

This has lessened recently and over a single-lap I'd fancy Kubica to be leading the challenge after Ferrari/McLaren.

But over a sequence of them? It's quite easy to see him coming under huge pressure – in particular from Fernando Alonso's Renault and Nico Rosberg's Williams.

Heidfeld seems to be struggling more with the car's nervy nature than Kubica and we may well see the Pole fully convert his dazzling talent to F1 on a regular basis this year. If so, Nick's got a very tough job ahead of him.

Williams have been gaining headlines as the most-improved team but they must be particularly concerned about what Alonso and Renault might have up their sleeves.

Williams is an improving team and now looks very solid. Renault is a recent title-winning team and operationally maybe still the best in the pit lane.

The R28 is no world-beater as yet but within this group Renault have the best driver on side. Alonso will not only be his usual relentless self over a race distance but he brings a focus and energy to the team that should see it progress fast.

This is the sort of role Rosberg now needs to assume at Williams and it's a much bigger challenge than just establishing yourself as a fast young driver – which is all that he's done so far.

But he's intelligent, and that counts for an awful lot. This is a crucial season for him.

Neither Nelson Piquet nor Kazuki Nakajima will be consistent thorns in the sides of their respective team-mates, but both will have their moments. Expect Piquet in particular to come on ever stronger as the season progresses.

On the cusp

Red Bull is within this group at the moment, but not at the head of it. Which must come as a disappointment, given that this is Adrian Newey's second car for the team.

The RB4 looks remarkably similar to last year's machine, though the underbody and weight distribution are actually substantially different. Maybe the team have yet to unlock hidden potential in there, but if not then they're in for a big battle at each race just to get into the points.

Expect Mark Webber to be the cutting edge of the team most weekends, but time is running out on his career if he's ever to prove he's as good as he believes.

David Coulthard, with 13 grand prix wins, has nothing to prove and is still operating at the level he was when at McLaren all those years ago.

Red Bull may come to thank their lucky stars they have Webber's dynamic qualifying pace to rely on to keep them from being embarrassed by their junior team Toro Rosso.

Using last year's car at least until the beginning of the European season, they have benefited greatly by their familiarity with a known product, giving a great base for the ever-improving Sebastian Vettel.

So far he has outshone Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, who has a tough motivational task ahead of him after years of relentless success in America.

Toyota are probably good enough at present to be vying with the two Red Bull teams. They are confident the TF108 has great potential and certainly Jarno Trulli's time on the final day of testing raised a lot of eyebrows.

But it was a suspicious time in that it came only 10 minutes after the car had been lapping 2s slower. If it was representative, the Toyota would be comfortably best of the rest after Ferrari/McLaren. More likely it was a no-ballast morale-booster, but let's wait and see.

Timo Glock has adapted well so far but once the clock's ticking for real, he may find Trulli's one-lap pace difficult to deal with.

The rest

Force India definitely look to be faster than Honda. The former Spyker team has made genuine progress with the Mike Gascoyne-led update of last year's car and now looks to be on a secure footing at last and imbued with ambition rather than treading water.

Giancarlo Fisichella has a knack of getting a lot from a slower car, even though it seems not to translate when he gets the opportunity in a front-rank one. He's made a DC-like late career move here, but I'd expect some great Indian summer days from him.

Adrian Sutil, gifted though he is, has a proper F1 driver as a team-mate for the first time. How he responds to that challenge will determine his future. If he disappoints, tester Tonio Liuzzi is waiting in the wings.

Honda seems somehow to have come up with a less competitive car than last year's woeful RA107. It's difficult even to imagine how frustrating this must be for both drivers, but especially Jenson Button.

Rubens Barrichello at least has a very successful career behind him. Button's going into his ninth year of F1 still with only a single victory to his name. That is as drastic an under-representation of a driver's level as F1 has seen since the days of Chris Amon.

In a competitive car, he's world title material. Even with Ross Brawn on board, the clock is ticking way too fast for Button.

Super Aguri might not even make it to Melbourne, which would be a great shame for a tight little team that has won many admirers for its pluck.

But given that customer cars are ultimately not going to be allowed, it's difficult to see a long-term future for the team even if they survive the current crisis.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Hamilton reigns supreme in rain-swept Fuji thriller

Championship lead grows to 12 points as Alonso crashes out

It started as possibly the worst race of the season, in treacherous wet conditions, but ended as arguably the best - so long as you were Lewis Hamilton, that is, or a fan of motor racing. For behind the Englishman, who took his fourth win of the season in brilliant style, Heikki Kovalainen held off Kimi Raikkonen by a whisker for second place as they duelled wheel to wheel.

And further back Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa rubbed wheels, pushed each wide and passed and repassed in a spirited sprint to the line for sixth reminiscent of Dijon 1979 and the battle between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. Massa got the verdict by a hair.

If you were Fernando Alonso, however, it was a day of disaster. Blown off by Hamilton, he slipped way back after his first pit stop, had several off-course excursions, collided with Toro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel at one stage, and then did the job properly by crashing heavily in Turn Six.

Hamilton thus leads the title chase with 107 points to Alonso’s static 95, while Raikkonen is now up to 90 points. Massa, on 80, is now officially out of the title chase with two races remaining.

This was a strange one, for sure, running under the safety car for the first 19 laps as the heavy rain refused to abate. But after that slow start it erupted into a humdinger. Both Ferraris had to make early stops after starting on standard wet tyres against official rulings that everyone should go to the line on extreme wets. Jean Todt claimed they weren’t informed, but everyone else knew.

Thus it was fast-starting Sebastian Vettel who chased the McLarens initially, with Mark Webber’s Red Bull right behind his Toro Rosso. Both the German and the Australian (laps 29 to 31 and 32 to 35 respectively) had turns leading the race after the initial pit stops, but after Alonso’s crash on lap 41 the safety car came out again and Vettel ran into the back of Webber and took them both out.

That left the way open for Kovalainen to push up to second in Hamilton’s wake, and to drive the race of his life to keep the spirited Raikkonen at bay. Behind them, David Coulthard took a strong fourth for Red Bull, having kept Raikkonen at bay for many laps. In the second Renault Giancarlo Fisichella drove unobtrusively to fifth, ahead of the scrapping Massa and Kubica, who both benefited when Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber stopped right at the end.

That retirement also opened the door for Tonio Liuzzi to score Toro Rosso’s first point of 2007. The Italian started from the pit lane in the spare car after his dry settings gamble in qualifying backfired spectacularly, exploited the team’s solid strategy, and, as a key, made up no fewer than four places as the race restarted after the second safety car period. He had a couple of offs trying to pass Spyker’s Adrian Sutil, but finally made it stick after a worthy drive.

Sutil was ninth after a decent run, while Rubens Barrichello inherited tenth from Honda team mate Jenson Button, whose car stopped on the final lap after the Briton had pitted early on to replace a nosecone damaged in a brush with Heidfeld at the start. The final finishes were Sakon Yamamoto in the second Spyker, and Jarno Trulli for Toyota.

The other retirements were Williams’ Alex Wurz who spun in Turn One and got clobbered by Massa, the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, and Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota.

Now everyone heads immediately to Shanghai for the penultimate race, and more than ever it seems that the title will be heading Hamilton’s way.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hamilton steals pole from Alonso in Japan

Lewis Hamilton snatched pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix in a rain-hit Fuji qualifying session on Saturday.

The championship leader punched the air in delight after denying Fernando Alonso with a thrilling final lap and took pole for the fourth time of his stellar rookie season.

Hamilton, who leads his McLaren team-mate by two points with three races left, bagged top spot right at the end of the session by just 0.070 seconds, as he defied the greasy conditions with a time of one minute 25.368 seconds.

Rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa will line up on the second row of the grid.

Hamilton, 22, said: "I'm feeling relaxed and with the way this weekend has gone, I am even more relaxed.

"I know I have got two guys breathing down my neck, but I am not bothered. But it is going to be a very close, tough race and the key will be getting to the first corner first.

"I knew it was my last chance at pole and I was delighted when I got it. That's why I punched the air.

"We have not had much practice in the wet conditions and it was difficult. But it was good fun out there and I am sure if the conditions are changing during the race it will be exciting."

Double world champion Alonso said: "It would have been better to be on pole, but I am on the front row, which is important. It is very close between the top four drivers."

Raikkonen, 13 points behind Hamilton and needing to win Sunday's race to keep his title hopes alive, finished just a tenth of a second back.

The Finn said: "I had a small problem with the gearbox but hopefully that will be fixed for tomorrow. It was a sensor problem which cost us some time.

"But the car felt pretty OK in the last session and I was happy. I think I am in a good position for the race."

Germany's Nick Heidfeld was fifth fastest for BMW, just ahead of his countryman Nico Rosberg, driving for Williams, who will start 10 places further back after suffering a penalty for changing his race engine earlier in the weekend.

It looked for a time that Hamilton would fail to qualify from the first timed session as he got caught behind two slower cars, but he eventually made it through with just 17 seconds to spare.

Britain's Jenson Button, who gave the home crowd something to cheer about after finishing seventh fastest for Japanese giants Honda, will now start sixth after Rosberg's penalty.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Formula One: Belgium Grand Prix Review

Kim Räikkönen became a three-time winner at Spa leading Ferrari to a one-two victory as McLaren were thrashed into a distant third and fourth on Sunday.
The 18 championship points also secured Ferrari the Constructors’ Championship following McLaren’s disqualification in the manufacturers title race.
It was a dominant performance by Ferrari, who had the measure of the beleaguered McLaren team for the entire race and never once looked to be under any threat.
Räikkönen confessed Spa was definitely his favourite circuits on the F1 calendar.
“For sure it’s my favourite circuit, it was even before I came into Formula One, so it’s nothing to do with if I win or lose here. I just like it here, but I think that’s the reason that I have won here. It’s just a good circuit,” he told reporters in the post race press briefing.
Runner-up Felipe Massa, who set the fastest lap, said he was delighted for Ferrari. "It was a good race. I am very happy for the team as we really wanted this one-two! Now, the situation in the championship is a bit better and we will continue to fight to the end, believe it!"
Jean Todt was impressed with the team’s performance and with the numbers. "Seventh win, the fourth with Kimi and the third one-two of the year. These are the numbers after a fantastic weekend and they come courtesy of all the work of a great team, which is working as one, united and motivated, while the drivers also did a great job,” he stressed.
“There are three races to go and we will tackle them in the same spirit with the same approach as always, which means to say, with determination, passion and team spirit."
Third placed Fernando Alonso conceded Ferrari were simply too quick for them this time.
“I think they were too quick for us. I tried quite hard in the first stint to keep pace with Felipe, just hoping around the pit stop time to make up a position but slowly they were disappearing and after the first stop, for sure, we didn’t see them anymore,” he said.
“We lack a little bit of pace in the race. We were quite OK in qualifying but for sure in the race we were off the pace by a couple of tenths.”
Ferrari were so dominant in a two-horse race that uncharacteristically the Belgium Grand Prix proved to be a rather staid affair with the only true drama coming in the opening lap when Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, who finished fourth, ran side-by-side through turns three and four, eventually Hamilton was forced wide and conceded the place to his team-mate.
The championship leader was incensed by Alonso’s tactics saying: "For someone that's always complaining about people doing unfair manoeuvres, and wanting to be fair, and someone I look up to...he has gone and swiped me and pushed me as wide as he could. I was just really lucky there was a run-off area so I could take that."
BMW-Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld consolidated his position as the best of the rest with another fifth place finish whilst Williams’ Nico Rosberg secured his second consecutive sixth place.
Mark Webber grabbed his first points since the European Grand Prix with seventh whilst Heikki Kovalainen took the last of the points in eighth for Renault.
Further down the finishing table the only driver to stand out by some margin was a vastly improved Adrian Sutil and the B-spec Spyker car, who, for much of the race was running in 12th place until his second stop.
Team principal Colin Kolles was delighted with his team’s performance saying:
”I am very pleased to see that we are now making real progress and are able to compete with the cars around us. Adrian had an excellent race to 14th position. I think we can now look forward to the last three races of the year.”
Not so happy were Fisichella, who ran wide damaging his suspension on the opening lap, Sebastian Vettel who had a steering problem, David Coulthard and Jenson Button who both retired with a hydraulics failure and finally Alex Wurz, who once again had a miserable weekend spinning in the opening few laps before eventually suffering a fuel pressure failure.
Kimi Räikkönen’s victory closes the gap to Hamilton to 13 points, whilst Alonso has taken yet another point of his team-mate to lag just two points with three races remaining.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Fernando Alonso wins The Italian Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso, the reigning world champion, wins again at the Italian Grand Prix. He won it quite comfortably leading from start to the finish. The second place went to Lewis Hamilton, who had to work hard to fight off Kimmi Raikonnen of Ferrari who came third.Fernando Alonso had been fluent all weekend and today was no exception. No one troubled him except for Lewis Hamilton in the very first corner and for a next few laps. Lewis actually had a very bad start and almost gave away the place to Filipe Massa, but Lewis wasn't giving up and with extra late breaking almost even caught Alonso off guard, but there was a small contact and Lewis went flying staright missing the chicane.
Safety car was brought in after David Coulthard went staright to the tire walls, with front wing problem. The laps under safety cars became crucial later as this allowed many drivers even Kimmi Raikkonen for a one stop stragedy. Filipe Massa was the next casualty, he didn't have any accidents but retired with suspension failure.
The one stop stragedy nearly paid off for Raikonnen. He came ahead of Lewis Hamilton after Lewis's second pit stop. But Lewis wasn't going to make that happen and with Raikonnen struggling with the car and his own heath(neck problem after the horrendous accident during practice), Lewis overtook the struggling Ferrari in the circuit's first corner, and with a move only he could manage.
Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica took fourth and fifth places for BMW Sauber, the German driving his customary impeccable race, the Pole driving a stormer to recover from a fudged first pit stop, when his car appeared to fall from its jacks. He passed another race hero, Nico Rosberg, for fifth place on the 46th lap. The young German drove superbly in an initial fight with Jenson Button, who scored the final point for Honda in the wake of Heikki Kovalainen, who flew for Renault. The Briton was also in feisty form with a halfway decent car beneath him, but could not hold the Williams at bay.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Honda’s Rubens Barrichello duelled throughout, chased to the line by Jarno Trulli who lost many places on the opening lap in his Toyota. A dismal day left Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella lapped in 12th place ahead of Williams’ Alex Wurz, Super Aguri’s Anthony Davidson and Toyota’s Ralf Schumacher. Super Aguri’s Takuma Sato recovered from troubles on the opening lap for 16th, to head home the Toro Rossos of Tonio Liuzzi and Sebastian Vettel, and the Spykers of Adrian Sutil and Sakon Yamamoto.
In the driver title stakes, Alonso is now only three points behind Hamilton, with four races left. In the constructors’ championship, McLaren extended their advantage over Ferrari to 23 points.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Turkish Delight

Ferrari's Felipe Massa won his second consecutive Turkish Grand Prix on Sunday, beating teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Two-time defending Formula One champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren was third.

Overall leader Lewis Hamilton of McLaren had been in third place but dropped to fifth after shredding a tire on the 43rd lap. Nick Heidfeld was fourth.

At the end of the 58-lap race, Massa was 2.2 seconds ahead of Raikkonen, with Alonso 26 seconds back. Hamilton was 45 seconds behind Massa.

With five races left, Alonso gained on his teammate after being as low as sixth in the early stages of the race.

In the overall standings, Hamilton's lead was cut to five points over Alonso, 84-79. Massa is third with 69 points and Raikkonen is next with 68.

The Ferraris and McLarens continue to divide the races. In the 12 races so far, Alonso, Hamilton Massa and Raikkonen have won three each.

Massa made a reversal after his last race. He finished 13th in the Hungarian GP on Aug. 5 after a disappointing qualifying run that made him start from the back of the grid.

"Three Grands Prix here, two wins. Can't be better," Massa said. "Starting from pole, good car, difficult race. I managed to keep my concentration."

At the start Sunday, the two Ferrari drivers went to the top positions with Hamilton third. Alonso was beaten to the first turn by the two BMW-Sauber drivers and was sixth after the first lap. After five laps, he was more than seven seconds from first and, more important, almost five behind Hamilton.

"If someone told me on lap two you would be on the podium ... I would be very happy," Alonso said. "At the end, the final result is the best thing of the weekend."

Alonso was penalized five spots on the starting grid for the Hungarian GP after delaying his teammate in the pits in the final minutes of qualifying, although Hamilton refused to let Alonso pass him earlier, contrary to McLaren team orders. Hamilton won and Alonso was fourth.

At 10 laps Sunday it was still the two Ferraris ahead of Hamilton, with Alonso about 10 seconds back. Alonso was able to move into fourth past Heidfeld and Robert Kubica at the first pit stop, but he was still losing time.

Raikkonen closed to within a second.

"I made a small, small mistake and Kimi closed the gap," Massa said. "Just a small mistake made my life difficult."

Raikkonen said the result was predictable after Saturday when Massa was first, two places ahead of the Finnish driver.

"In Formula One these days the race is pretty much decided after qualifying," Raikkonen said.

Things changed on the 43rd lap when Hamilton was flapping rubber from his shredded front tire while in third place. Hamilton managed to make it to the pits to change the tire but Alonso moved into third and Heidfeld was fourth.

"I saw some bits fly off the tire," Hamilton said. "It was lucky I didn't put the car in the gravel and managed to control it back to the pits as this meant that in the end I only lost two places."

Hamilton said the tire cost him a place on the podium.

"I was pushing obviously. Without a doubt we would have finished third. I still had six laps more fuel than the Ferraris. I was hoping in those six laps I could get Kimi," Hamilton said.

"Then the tire went."

Renault's Heikki Kovalainen was sixth, followed by Nico Rosberg of Williams and Kubica.

The next race is the Italian Grand Prix on Sept. 9, followed by the Belgian Grand Prix a week later.

2007 Turkish Grand Prix Results

Driver Team
Time/Retired Grid Pts
Felipe Massa Ferrari
1:26:42.161 1 10
Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari
+2.2 secs 3 8
Fernando Alonso McLaren-Mercedes
+26.1 secs 4 6
Nick Heidfeld BMW
+39.6 secs 6 5
Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes
+45.0 secs 2 4
Heikki Kovalainen Renault
+46.1 secs 7 3
Nico Rosberg Williams-Toyota
+55.7 secs 8 2
Robert Kubica BMW
+56.7 secs 5 1
Giancarlo Fisichella Renault
+59.4 secs 10
David Coulthard Red Bull-Renault
+71.0 secs 13
Alexander Wurz Williams-Toyota
+79.6 secs 14
Ralf Schumacher Toyota
+1 Lap 16
Jenson Button Honda
+1 Lap 21
Anthony Davidson Super Aguri-Honda
+1 Lap 11
Vitantonio Liuzzi STR-Ferrari
+1 Lap 15
Jarno Trulli Toyota
+1 Lap 9
Rubens Barrichello Honda
+1 Lap 22
Takuma Sato Super Aguri-Honda
+1 Lap 17
Sebastian Vettel STR-Ferrari
+1 Lap 18
Sakon Yamamoto Spyker-Ferrari
+2 Laps 20
Adrian Sutil Spyker-Ferrari
Fuel pressure 19
Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault
Hydraulics 12