July 31, 2011

F1 Update!: Hungary 2011

In the 25 year history of the Hungarian Grand Prix, there had only been one wet race, 2006.  That year, Jenson Button, then driving for BAR Honda, started very far back on the grid and through fine use of his wet-weather tires earned his first Grand Prix victory.  Today, despite weather forecasts calling for sunny skies, rain was falling in Budapest as Jenson Button, now driving for McLaren, took to the grid for his 200th Grand Prix start.  Would history repeat itself?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2011 Grand Prix of Hungary!

*FALLING SKIES:  Indeed, rain was falling lightly as the cars took to the track for their reconnaissance lap to the grid.  When the cars rolled off on the parade lap, everybody was on the Intermediate tires... but the rain had stopped, and nobody could say what the weather was going to do next.  By the time the parade lap was complete and the drivers were awaiting the extinguishing of the lights, there was already the faintest hint of a dry line on the circuit.  For both the men in the cockpits and the men on the pit wall, this was the worst of all possible scenarios.

*AND WE'RE OFF: Red Bull's Seb Vettel led the the two McLarens into the first turn, and us jaded watchers in the F1U! war room pretty much expected him to run away and hide.  After all, he's been one of the better wet-weather drivers on the grid in recent years.  Meanwhile to nobody's surprise, Vettel's teammate Mark Webber had another of his patented Lousy Starts©, dropping to approximately 94th position... or 8th, if you want to be picky about it. 

*BUT...:  Not only didn't Vettel gap the field, it very quickly became clear that he was actually holding up the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton!  For the first four laps, it looked like the Glare On Wheels was attached to the Red Bull by a tow bar, so firmly was Hamilton stuck to the rear of Vettel.  On Lap 4 Hamilton nearly pulled off a pass going down into Turn 2, but had to back down.  In the same place on Lap 5, he tried again... and Vettel lost grip on the wet pavement and staggered wide, letting the 2008 World Champion by with nary a shout.  In fact, he nearly let the McLaren of Jenson Button, shadowing the two in third place, get by while recovering.  By the start of the sixth lap, Hamilton had a 2.5 second lead, and showed no sign of slowing up.

*HOW DRY I AM: On lap 11, with very little to lose Mark Webber became the first driver to risk shedding his galoshes and tried on the super-soft tires.  A lap later, so did Button from third, and then everybody else came in the next lap.  The order remained Hamilton, Vettel and Button... until Button blew the metaphorical doors off the reigning World Champion to take 2nd place.  Meanwhile, in all the scramble and hubbub in the pits, Webber ripped off some blistering laps and wound up in fourth.  Gamble won for the Aussie.

*RENAULT FLAMBE:  The day had not been going well for Grizzly Nick Heidfeld.  Nowhere near the top 10, with no visible hope of improving much, he ducked into the pits for another set of tires.  A recalcitrant wheelnut kept him in the box for a long stop... just long enough for the Renault's forward-facing exhaust to begin burning sidepod carbon fiber.  As he was released from the stop, smoke and some sparks were visible, and by the time he reached the end of the pitlane, it was clear something was very very wrong.  When he pulled over onto the grass, things got even worse.

Heidfeld quickly scrambled out of the car and headed for the hills, unharmed but lightly toasted.  As he ran towards the armco, track marshals ran towards the now merrily burning Renault with fire extinguishers.  Soon, most of the fire was out, and it became a case of preventing it from restarting.  A marshal went around to the left-hand side of the car and hosed down the most obviously burned part of the sidepod...

Reports are that the extinguisher spray hit a superheated aluminum bottle of nitrogen, used to pneumatically actuate the cams in the engine, that through last season was kept inside the monocoque.  This year, Renault moved the bottle to the outside of the cockpit, inside the sidepod.  The sudden blast of cold fluid, combined with the heat expansion of the nitrogen inside the aluminum bottle, caused the bottle to fail explosively.  While debris was scattered some 20 feet onto the track and the marshal suffered some minor leg injuries from carbon fiber shrapnel, all was basically okay.  Dramatic, though. (UPDATE: Video can be found here)

*MORE DRAMA:  On Lap 45, Hamilton still led Button by some 6.5 seconds, followed by Vettel, HWMNBN and Webber.  Nobody else is within 50 seconds of the leader... but there is trouble in the air.  Specifically, a light rain shower had begun to fall on the back half of the track.  Hamilton looped his car in the sudden slickness, letting his teammate by for the lead, but gets back on the pace before Vettel can catch him.  On Lap 50, Button returns the favor by sliding wide in a puddle and Hamilton regained the lead.  At this moment, the race seemed poised on a knife's edge.  If the rain continued, you'd have to go onto Intermediate tires just to stay on the track... but if it didn't, the slicks would remain the way to go.  On Lap 52, Webber again made the call first and went for the Inters.

*SNAKE-EYES: On Lap 53, the McLaren pitwall got on the radio to their drivers: pit for Intermediate tires.  Hamilton dove in, but Jenson Button stayed out on the slicks to retake the lead.  Suddenly every eye in Budapest was affixed to the skies... would it or wouldn't it continue to rain?  In two laps, as HWMNBN made easy work of the galoshes-shod McLaren, it became obvious that Button, not Hamilton, had made the right call.  Hamilton went back into the pits for dry tires, then was told he'd have to make a drive-through penalty for his actions during his spin recovery on Lap 45.  He would rejoin the race in 6th, never again to be a threat.

*THE END:  Button eased off on the final lap, allowing Vettel to close to within 3.5 seconds as they crossed the finish line, but it wasn't really that close.  Ferrari's HWMNBN crossed the line 20 seconds later in third.  Hamilton, taking advantage of Webber's Red Bull in traffic, managed to finish fourth, nearly 50 seconds adrift, with Webber a second behind him.  Some 30 seconds after that came Felipe Massa's Ferrari, some two years after he was nearly killed at this track.

*OH, ONE MORE THING:  The Hungarian Grand Prix saw the title hopes of 17 drivers dashed.  The only people mathematically in contention now are the drivers of the Red Bulls, McLarens, Ferraris and Nico Rosberg.

: The Hungaroring horks up a good race only when it rains.  The first time it happened was 2006; Jenson Button won that one too.  A superb drive from the 2009 World Champion, who made the right call to stay out despite ominous skies... a call that won him the race.

*TEAM OF THE RACE:  McLaren.  Red Bull still has the lead in both the Drivers and Constructors championships, but the gap is closing.  At least for the moment, it looks like McLaren has caught the leaders on the track, and their drivers are showing that they, not the Red Bull men, are the class of the field.  Might make for an interesting second half, that.

*MOVE OF THE RACE:  While serving Lap 64, Lewis Hamilton was hotly pursuing Mark Webber for fourth when they came upon Gandalf Kobayashi, who was trying to make a set of tires go some 30 laps... and failing miserably.  He'd lost five places in two laps as the two heavy hitters came up behind him.

Knowing that Gandalf was there, Hamilton dove to the inside of Webber.  Just for an instant, the Red Bull driver was pinned in place, unable to get out from behind the Sauber.

Quick as a flash, Hamilton zipped by Webber for fourth place.

For taking advantage of of the prevailing terrain (the Sauber Rolling Chicane?), we hereby bestow the MotR upon Lewis Hamilton.

*MOOOOOOOO-OOOOVE OF THE RACE:  Yes, we know it was damp and slippery out there.  Yes, we understand that the racing surface is different than the surface in the pit lane.  Yes, we are also aware that the paint on the pitlane gets even more slippery when it's wet.  But c'mon, Custard d'Ambrosio, it's not like you're driving on an olive oil-covered ice rink.

Spinning in the pit lane and sending your crew scrambling for cover?  Yes, you'd best believe that's a Mooooooooo-oooo.  Way to go!

No driver quotes, as this F1U! is late enough as it is.  F1 now enters its summer vacation period, so our next race isn't until the end of August!  Oh, but it's a special one... because we'll be in Spa-Francopants!  See you then and there!

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July 24, 2011

F1 Update!: Germany 2011

Grey, leaden skies hovered over the Nurb Jr today.  Every member of every team kept one eye cocked to the heavens looking for the first hint of rain, and wet weather tires were never far from reach.  Would they be needed?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2011 Grand Prix of Germany.

*NOPE:  While the clouds overhead kept everybody on their toes all day by squirting tiny amounts of moisture at the racing tarmac, it never progressed to the point where the galoshes had to come out.  The hob this played with team strategies was tremendous (as we'll see later).  Everybody knew it was coming, everybody was planning for it, and nobody ever got it.

*THE BAD OLD DAYS... NOT SO BAD ONCE IN A WHILE:  Judging the 2011 German Grand Prix is somewhat difficult.  Those expecting a pass-fest full of excitement and NASCAR-like swapping of places didn't get it, and thus will decry the race at boring.  They might even be correct.  What we got today was an old-fashioned race of dueling pit strategies, seeing who could make their soft tires last the longest while trying to stay off the hard compound tires Pirelli brought to the track.  The hards had two problems this weekend.  While they could last forever on the non-abrasive surface at Nurb Jr (Pirelli estimated that they'd be able to go 100 laps), they had no grip whatsoever.  The second problem was that the grip was made even worse by the chilly temperatures.  It was 54 degrees at race time, and the track surface wasn't much warmer.  Getting heat into the tires proved to be awfully difficult today.

*THE START'S THE KEY:  In most respects, the race today was decided when the lights went out.  Polesitter Mark Webber had another of his patented Lousy Starts©, losing the lead to Lewis Hamilton before the first turn.  He would never legitimately hold the lead again.  When Seb Vettel spun on Lap 10, he fell from third to fourth place, but 12 full seconds back and would never be a threat.  It became a race between Hamilton and Ferrari's HWMNBN, with Webber grimly hanging on, ready to take advantage of any mistake... and maybe drive somebody into one.

*MIDRACE:  It became clear that some drivers were banking on rain.  Adrian Sutil didn't make his first stop until Lap 24, Jenson Button until Lap 25.  Both were as high as fourth place, and both looked to be ready to score some serious points, but Button blew a hydraulic line and had to retire on Lap 36.  Up front, Hamilton, HWMNBN and Webber were basically racing in the pit lanes: whichever's mechanics could get them in and out the fastest would win.

*ENDGAME:  In the end, nothing could deny Lewis Hamilton his second win of the season.  HWMNBN finished less than four seconds behind in second, with Webber almost six seconds adrift of the Ferrari.  Behind them however, Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Red Bull's Seb Vettel were in quite a little duel... and an eye-opening one it was.  Vettel was obviously faster than the Ferrari, yet he could do nothing with the Brazilian.  The media has been saying for quite some time that Seb Vettel is a great driver from the lead, but put him back in the pack and he's merely average, with an amazing penchant for some awfully clumsy driving (see Turkey 2010).  As it turned out, Massa led Vettel until the final lap, when the two had to pit and put on hard tires to satisfy the sporting regulations.  They came in nose-to-tail, about a half-second separating them.  They left the pits with Vettel holding a nearly two second lead over Massa, courtesy of a miserable 5.5-second tire change from Ferrari.  They finished over a half-minute behind the winner.  Force India's Adrian Sutil, stretching his tires to the limit, brought it home in sixth, almost 90 seconds back.  Nobody else was on the same lap.

*AFTERWARD:  Shortly after crossing the finish line, the Ferrari of HWMNBN ran out of fuel and coasted to a stop somewhere on the course.  Mark Webber, right behind him, decided to stop and give him a lift back to the pit lane.

We here in the US never saw it.

*DRIVER OF THE RACE: Lewis Hamilton.  At the start of the race weekend, Hamilton was quite vocal about his chances: slim-to-none.  The car just didn't have the pace.  After Quals, he was saying that it was the the best lap he'd ever turned, and that there wasn't anything else in the car... and all he could manage was second place.  Hamilton won the race, set fast lap, and led more laps than anybody today.  Either he did a fantastic job or his car is better than he thinks.  Or both.

*TEAM OF THE RACE: McLaren.  When they had to perform, they did.  They consistently made the right strategy calls at the right time, their mechanics were flawless, and the drivers made their plans work.  That Jenson Button lost hydraulic line knocked him out of the race is the only black mark on a sterling day.  Ferrari's mechanics lost Massa a position on the last lap, Red Bull kept Mark Webber out a lap or two too long on his final stop, costing him any chance at second.  Only McLaren kept it together.

*MOVE OF THE RACE: On Lap 32, Lewis Hamilton pitted from the lead and came out in 2nd place behind HWMNBN.  The gap between the two was very close to the pit lane "delta time," or how long it would take to drive into the pit lane, change tires, then drive off the pit lane.  The next lap, the Ferrari driver pulled in for new tires.  He got out ahead of the charging McLaren, but the Glare on Wheels had the momentum.

The Ferrari had problems getting the power down; the one drawback of brand new tires is that, until they get heat in them, they aren't particularly sticky.  No grip = no power.

Heading into Turn 2, Hamilton put his foot down and began to charge around the outside of the turn... not the easiest way to make a living, particularly when you've got a squirrely Ferrari a foot or so to your left.

Outpowering the red car through the outside of the turn, Hamilton showed all sorts of guts and racing skill.  His reward?  First place, and the MOTR.

*MOOOOOOO-OOOOVE OF THE RACE:  On Lap 11, Renault's Grizzly Nick Heidfeld was harassing Toro Rosso's Seb Buemi back in the order.  It was clear that Heidfeld was faster and was surely the better driver.  All Buemi had in his favor was a lead and an aggressive desire to keep the Renault behind him.  When Grizzly Nick made his move to the outside going into a chicane, Buemi threw a block that would have made Merlin Olson proud.  However, blocking in F1 shouldn't be a contact sport, and Buemi turned it into one.  The result was not pretty.

Buemi ended up with a punctured rear tire and a five gridspot penalty for next week's race in Hungary.  Grizzly Nick ended up in the kittylitter with a broken car.  If anything good came of this clumsy Mooooo-ooove, it was that we got to see this camera shot:


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July 10, 2011

F1 Update!: Britain 2011

Rules changes that may have been aimed directly at the Red Bull team didn't seem to slow them down at all in Quals.  But what would actually occur when the lights went out at Silverstone?  Would Ferrari kick Vettel to the curb?  Would McLaren make a remarkable comeback from a depressing qualifying stint?  Or would the rain come bucketing down like it did during practice, throwing everything into a tizzy?  THIS is your F1U! for the 2011 Grand Prix of Great Britain!

*LIGHTS OUT:  While it wasn't raining when the race began, just a few minutes before the back half of the track had been in the middle of a downpour.  Up at the start/finish line however the track was pretty much dry.  The entire field was on Intermediate tires, and with the way the weather had been at Silverstone for the past two days, nobody was sure if they'd have to change to full wets, move to slicks, or stay on the Inters, perhaps as soon as the end of Lap 1.  The weather was just that weird.  When the lights went out, polesitter Mark Webber made one of his patented Lousy Starts©, allowing his teammate, Seb Vettel, to rocket by him in a repeat of a scene we've seen all too many times this season.  Meanwhile, Ferrari's HWMNBN began living right behind the Australian driver, not quite able to get by but not letting his opponent get away.  Behind them, everything is thrown into a cocked hat.  McLaren's Lewis Hamilton picks up three places at the start, and by the end of the second lap is up to fifth, passing his teammate. 

*AND SO ON...: By Lap 10, it's clear that the track is just about ready for the normal slick tires... on the racing line at least.  Slappy Schumacher, fresh after discovering that wet pavement is slippery and misplacing his front wing somewhere in the side of Gandalf Kobayashi's Sauber, becomes the first to try the regular tires, followed by half the field on the next lap.  A few laps later, both Lotuses are out with problems with their Renault engines.  As these may very well be the first engine failures of the entire season, there is immediate thought that the new rules against the "throttle trick" are causing overheating.  On Lap 25, Gandalf pulls over, his engine cooked to a lovely shade of golden brown. 

*PIT MISFORTUNES:  Two weeks ago in Spain, all 24 cars that started the race finished, only the third time in the 61 year history of F1 that has ever occurred (the last time was in 2005).  A lot of that can be put down to the sterling work by the pit crews.  Not this race.  Kobayashi was handed a 10 second stop-and-go penalty for being released unsafely into the pit lane, taking with him a Force India airhose in the process.  In an unrelated incident, Force India's Paul diResta on lap 26 stopped for new tires... and discovered that the team had teammate Adrian Sutil's ready for him.  The screwed up pitstop cost him nine places, dropping from seventh to 16th.  We'll talk about what happened to Jenson Button later.  But then came the big mistake.  On Lap 27, Vettel pits from the lead with 2nd place HWMNBN a few seconds behind him.  Ferrari got their man in and out in a hurry, but the Red Bull mechanics had problems with an airgun.  HWMNBN, who was some seconds behind the young German champion at the beginning of the pitstop, sweeps by before the Red Bull driver has all four tires on and takes over the lead.

*CONTINUING DEVELOPMENTS:  At this point, the order is HWMNBN, Lewis Hamilton and Seb Vettel.  It still stands that was on Lap 32, but the Ferrari driver is a full seven seconds ahead of second place Hamilton, who has Vettel all over his rear wing.  Astonishingly, the Red Bull can't get past the obviously slower McLaren, allowing the Ferrari driver to open an 11 second lead in the space of a few laps.  Obviously frustrated, the Austrian team called their driver in for a pit stop on Lap 37, hoping that fresh tires and no McLaren in front of them will make a difference.  In response, Vettel turns in the lap of the day and when Hamilton came in for tires on the next lap, his mechanics take 0.2 seconds longer than Vettel's; this, combined with the lightning-fast out lap, allows the reigning World Champion to jump Hamilton on the pit exchange.  On Lap 40, HWMNBN pits from the lead for the final time, and when he rejoined the race still in the lead, it became clear that the churchbells would be busy in Maranello. 

*AND THEN...:  All a race driver wants to do is go fast.  That's what he does, after all... what else IS there to racing, when it comes right down to it?  So imagine what was going through Lewis Hamilton's head on Lap 44.  He's in third, having passed Ferrari's Felipe Massa to get there, but he has Mark Webber coming up behind him fast, and Seb Vettel is merely a couple of seconds ahead.  Of course he's going to want to run like the wind, right?  Then came the call from the pit wall: "Lewis, we need to conserve fuel if we're going to finish the race."  It appears that McLaren, gambling on a slower, less fuel-intensive wet race, didn't put enough gas into his car for the surprisingly quick-paced (mostly) dry race they got.  Two laps later, Webber cruised by the drastically slower Hamilton, kicking the 2008 Champion off the podium.  By Lap 49, another threat emerges: Felipe Massa's Ferrari has gained over seven seconds in three laps and appears to be drooling at the opportunity in front of him. 

*THIS IS THE END:  Much to everybody's surprise and delight, Hamilton might not have been the only one with fuel problems.  Mark Webber was making up time in huge gulps on Seb Vettel, maybe for the same reason the McLaren had slowed, or perhaps because the German's tires had gone off.  Whichever reason it was, on Laps 50 and 51, the two teammates begin to go at it hammer and tongs.  Only a slightly dangerous blocking maneuver kept the Aussie behind Vettel.  Back at the Red Bull pit wall, team principal Christian Horner has a heart attack and dies.  Recovering quickly, he immediately says enough of that.  The forceful radio call goes out on the final lap: "Mark, maintain the gap."  It turned out that Webber had been ignoring similar calls for a few laps to have a go at his teammate, but that final, failed, attempt brought the team's foot down... and with the rules against team orders being removed this season, nothing will happen to the team.  Of course, this is the team that last year got quite holier-than-thou when Ferrari told Felipe Massa that "(HWMNBN) is faster than you."  "We would never issue team orders under any circumstances," I believe was the gist of Horner's quote back then.  Yeah, about that...

*FIN: Whatever little dramas were going on behind him bothered HWMNBN not a whit, as he sailed across the finish line some 16.5 seconds ahead of the two Red Bull drivers for his first win since the 2010 GP of Korea.  His teammate however, he was locked in a tooth-and-nail fight for fourth with Hamilton.  The McLaren pilot was doing an incredible job of keeping the ridiculously faster Ferrari behind him until the last sequence of turns.  Then the Brazilian made his move to the outside of the Brit.  The two bumped twice and Massa was forced into the run-off area outside of the final turn.  A balls-out sprint ensued, with Hamilton crossing the line 0.024 seconds ahead of Massa for fourth place, bringing to an end a surprisingly eventful race.

*DRIVER OF THE RACE:  HWMNBN.  From hounding Webber at the start to keeping his head as people nicked places off him in the pits, the Spaniard stayed as cool as the other side of the pillow all race, and it paid off in spades with a dominating victory... but one that never really seemed all that dominate.  Do it again and we here at F1U! will begin to believe it, though.

*TEAM OF THE RACE:  Ferrari.  From a miserable start to the season to nearly getting a 1-4 result, the red team from Maranello have got to be feeling pretty good right now.  Whether their sudden speed is a result of the new rules changes or from improvements in the car is a topic for another day.

*MOVE OF THE RACE:  On Lap 14, Jenson Button was hovering just behind Felipe Massa in 6th place as the two raced down the Hangar Straight.  Conditions were... um... dicey, to say the least, but that's the sort of track that Button enjoys racing on.  Into the 150mph Stowe corner they went, with Button making his move to the outside of the Ferrari.

Massa, despite a slight speed disadvantage, took some umbrage with this attempt and kept pushing the 2009 Champion farther and farther outside, until finally Button wasn't driving on the track at all, but on the painted section just off the circuit.

Somehow, Button managed to keep the car gripping the surface (unlike Gandalf Kobayashi in Friday's P1) as they raced down to Vale.  When Massa slid out to the racing line for the turn, Button pounced.

Barbecuing his front-left tire with his late braking, Button zipped past as the two entered Vale, and while Massa attempted a counterattack in Club, the McLaren had too much speed built up and ran away, bringing a truly professional pass to a close.  Well done, here's the MotR!

*MOOOOOOO-OOOVE OF THE RACE:  It seems appropriate that, given all the pitlane problems the teams had today, that the worst move of the race will be going to a pit crew member.  On Lap 40, Jenson Button was coming in for his final set of tires.  He was in fifth place, and had an outside shot at a podium position if everything went right.  Instead, everything went very very wrong.  The front-right air gun seemed to have a problem going from "loosen" to "tighten" as the old tire came off promptly, and the new tire put in place.  As the other three tires were bolted down however, the front-right gunner tried to lock the tire on the hub, and couldn't.  Immediately, he dropped the gun and began reaching for the backup.  The chief mechanic, also known as the "Lollypop Man" for the paddle-shaped "stop/go" board he wields, took the frantic scramble for a new gun to mean that the tire was safely attached, even though the usual notification for that is a neon-glove-covered hand held vertically above the tire.  The lollypop was lifted, and away went Button, exactly as he's supposed to do.  Before he got out of the pits, though...

Amazingly the tire never came completely off the hub, though only by the barest of margins.  He still had to park the car however, and the team was fined after the race for an unsafe release, to the tune of €5000.  From 5th to out, and a decent chunk of change to boot?  Yep, that's a Moooooo-ooove to the Lollypop Man!


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