March 25, 2012

F1 Update!: Malaysia 2012

When it rains in F1, everything you've known previously goes out the window.  Usually this means you're in for a wacky race, as rain is The Great Equalizer.  As the storm clouds crowded around the Sepang International Circuit, it looked like we were all set for a hefty dose of the wacky.  But who would take advantage?  Who would lose out?  And would it even rain after all?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2012 Grand Prix of Malaysia!

*PRE-RACE:  The closer it got to the point where the teams had to get off the grid and the cars had to roll out on the recon lap, the closer and heavier the rainclouds got.  Then, with around five minutes to go, the rain began to fall gently upon the asphalt.  Off came the slick tires, on went the Intermediates, and the mechanics scurried to the grass.

As the cars circumnavigated the track, the calls began to come in... some parts of the circuit were wetter than others.  Maybe it was just a localized shower and the Inters would only be on for a few laps.  The Thundering Herd took their places on the grid, anticipating the extinguishing of the lights and the start of the race... but at this point, nobody noticed that the lone HRT on the grid, driven by Narain Kittylitter, was on the full wet tires, while his teammate, Pete Rose, was in the pit lane, getting the Wellingtons put on his car as well.

*LIGHTS OUT:  As the field made its way to the Turn 1/2 Complex, everything was fine, just another drive in the park.  This week, polesitter Lewis Hamilton kept his teammate Jenson Button behind as they swung through the turns, while behind them there was much in the way of sound and fury, in the end signifying nothing.  Because when they reached Turns 3 and 4, all the skies broke loose.

The Sepang International Circuit is uniquely suited for wet races, in that it is wider than most tracks at 45 feet.  This allows the field to spread out to a certain degree so as not to be blinded by the spray.  While this is great for the leaders, it just makes life even harder for the people behind.  The man they call "The Rainmaster," Slappy Schumacher, spun almost immediately upon hitting the wet, maybe taking Lettuce Grosjean with him (or maybe being helped by the Renault Lotus).  Coming to a halt nearly in the center of the track, it was only by luck he wasn't run over by the cars behind.  Two turns later, Bruno Senna rotated his way off-track, missing the nearby graveltrap by scant inches.  By the end of Lap 2, some members of the field were diving into the pits for the full wet tires, others were staying out on the rapidly weakening Inters but keeping their cars on-track by force of will alone it appeared.  As occasionally happens at larger racetracks, the rain was heavier on one part of the circuit (the two straights and the first set of turns) than on other parts (the "back side").  Lettuce Grosjean, perhaps from damage suffered in his little dance with Slappy, spun off into a graveltrap and dug himself in on Lap 4, never to be seen again.  Jenson Button decided, apparently on his own, to come in and change to the Wet tires on Lap 5 while his teammate stayed out in the lead... as the rain began to bucket down even harder, now spreading to cover the entire circuit.  Even as skilled a driver as Hamilton began to suffer with the Inters as the Sepang International Swimming Pool began to retain, not shed, the water.  Meanwhile, Button on the Wets made up ground hand over fist.  Lewis ducked into the pit lane for his Wet tires on Lap 6, and it was going to be close to see if he'd get out ahead of Button.  The difference ended up being around one car's length, but Hamilton just barely stayed in the lead.  In the pit shuffle, the Sauber of Sergio Perez, who stopped at the end of Lap 1, wound up in third place. 

*SAFETY CAR:  At this point on Lap 7, a number of things happened at the same time.  First, Jenson Button radioed to the pit wall (and by extension, to Charlie Whiting, race controller) that "the third sector was a lake."  Second, the Safety Car was sent out.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, multiple bolts of lightning touched down in the vicinity of the rear grandstands, knocking out power to a number of the FIA cameras (and, coincidentally, much of the SkySports feed).  Then came the news that it was going to rain for at least another half-hour, and suddenly there was a lot of talk of the 2009 GP of Malaysia.  Well, the rain wasn't that heavy, but it was a valid concern.  It only took one lap behind Berndt Maylander before the red flag was thrown, and the race ground to a halt on Lap 9, the Herd forming up on the grid. 

*AMAZING: As the cars were put under the collapsible gazebos, deadly creatures they may be, some oddball bits of information began to appear.  For example, starting on the full wet tires had paid off for Narain Kittylitter, who was sitting in 10th place!  Jules Vergne's Toro Rosso was in 7th having never put on Wet tires at all, perhaps the bravest piece of driving we'd ever seen. 

*THUMB-TWIDDLING:  And so we sat under the red flag for nearly an hour.

Drivers would eventually get out of their cars and wander off the grid, presumably to towel off, play parcheesi, talk about the weather, that sort of thing, then eventually wander back, only to be told to go back and play Stratego... or something.  On the grid, the teams would every now and again stick a mechanic in the cockpit and fire up the cars, so as to keep the engines warm.  This is imperative, as when cold, a F1 engine is essentially a solid block of metal, the tolerances are so fine.  To start one, you need to preheat the lubricants, water, and so forth, then feed them in before it'll fire up.  Letting the lump get too cool on the grid means you're out of the race.  Eventually the rain cleared off, the track began to dry a bit, and the field was given five minutes to get ready. 

*HERE WE GO AGAIN:  The field perambulated behind the Mercedes AMG for three laps, then the race began again... but we must acknowledge the jape played by The Varsha, lead member of the Legendary Announce Team.  As the Safety Car pulled away from the field to get clear before the restart, he said "The lights are out on the Safety Car, we'll be back after this commercial break."  As the other two members of the L.A.T. made incoherent noises of outrage, The Varsha merely replied with "Somebody dared me." 

*AND WE'RE OFF: The race resumed, eventually the field came in for Inters around Lap 15 or 16.  Lewis Hamilton's stop was mangled terribly and he rejoined the field in 9th, which would become 3rd as the cars ahead of him stopped for tires.  Then Jenson Button, who had already stopped, got tangled up in the HRT of Kittylitter and lost his front wing.  To be fair, Kittylitter did nothing wrong.  He was under no obligation to move aside, since this was for position.  Button just made a mistake, and paid for it.  His stop was a hopeless blunder, the front nose going on well enough, but the tire change taking forever and the rear jack seem to get hung up.  Button fell from 9th to 20th, and would never factor in the race again. 

*SETTLING IN:  Then a frantic race began to relax a bit, with the Ferrari of HWMNBN in front, followed by Sergio Perez' Sauber and the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton.  Seb Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen followed behind, but were never close to a podium position.  On Lap 31, with everybody still on Inters, HWMNBN led Sergio Perez by nearly eight seconds...

*RATCHETING UP:  ...and then the Malaysian Miracle began.  It was clear at Australia that while the Saubers were gentle on their tires, the Ferraris weren't overly so.  The gap dropped to seven seconds... then 6.5 seconds... on Lap 35, it was just under five seconds.  Then it was clear that HWMNBN must have burned his tires straight off, because by Lap 36, the lead was 3.95 seconds.  Now the concern for both drivers had to be how long the tires would last before completely failing.  HWMNBN, Perez, and Hamilton were all on the Inters they put on some 20 laps previously, and while they may have been babying them, Inters just aren't designed to go that long.

Hamilton's were essentially slicks already, the Ferrari was showing signs that his were dying... only Perez was looking solid.  There was a stop coming... the only question was, would they go with Inters, or would they put on dry tires?  When Daniel Ricciardo put soft slicks on at Lap 39, everybody held their breath... as lightning flashed in the background.  Not only did Ricciardo survive the first try on drys, he turned the fastest lap of the race so far.  Since most of the rest of the field had Inters that looked like Hamilton's, everybody began to put on the racing shoes.

*THE MIRACLE MANIFESTS:  Everybody but the two men up front.  They had opened up such a gap to the McLaren that they could pit, put on new tires and come back on track and still not lose their positions.  A shocking turn of events after the prior week!  On Lap 40, Perez had nearly caught the Ferrari, cutting the lead to under one second.  The Red Team knew something had to be done, and they called their man in for fresh tires.  Shockingly, Sauber left Perez out on-track instead of ghosting the movements of the Ferrari.  Sergio Perez had the race in his hand at this point; if he could push hard enough and fast enough, he might be able to pit and get out again before HWMNBN could get by, taking the lead in the pit rotation.  It was not to be, however, and when the Sauber pitted, he rejoined the race behind the Ferrari... still in second place, but some four seconds behind and dropping rapidly as he tried to get the dry tires up to temperature.  By the time they were there, he was some seven seconds in arrears.  But nothing was going to stop the Mexican, not today.  By Lap 46, the lead was 3.2 seconds and again falling fast.  The stress levels were going through the roof, and even a little comic relief from Seb Vettel couldn't help (see Mooooooo-ooove Of The Race, below).

*MIRACLE MASSACRE: On Lap 49, the lead was .670 seconds and it was clear that there was little that HWMNBN would be able to do to defend the lead, what with Perez being able to use the DRS seven more times.  He'd be able to block, surely, but with the rulebook having been rewritten to prevent weaving, there's only so much that even a driver of HWMNBN's caliber could do to stop a clearly faster car from getting by.  Then the radio to the Sauber driver came alive with a call from his race engineer: "Remember, Sergio, we need this position."  While this was valid, particularly considering what happened to Williams F1 at the last race on the final lap, it seemed an odd time to make such a call.  Your driver is getting ready to stampede past a Ferrari for the lead and, incidentally, Sauber's first victory since 2008 and their second in 20 years of racing, and you're telling him to be careful?  Immediately the LAT wondered if the call was made because they run Ferrari engines.  While all three poo-poohed the idea, the thought remains... particularly because on Lap 50, mere moments after the call was made, Perez blew Turn 14 and ran wide, handing HWMNBN a full five seconds cushion.  At this point, the official F1U! notebook is filled with profanities and incoherent screamings. 

*THE END:  Sergio Perez wasn't done.  He returned to his prior quickness, taking a second per lap off the Ferrari, but he ran out of laps.  He finished second, only 2.26 seconds behind the Ferrari of HWMNBN.  Lewis Hamilton finished third, nearly 13 seconds behind the Sauber.

*DRIVER OF THE RACE:  HWMNBN has a lousy Ferrari underneath him, but even a bad Ferrari is usually better than the rest of the field, and he's now won 28 times in F1.  Sergio Perez has started fewer races than the Spaniard has won, and nearly took this victory away from him in an underfunded Sauber.  If Gandalf Kobayashi hadn't've retired his car from the points just before the radio call for Perez to be careful, would he have won?  We'll never know.  What we do know is that Perez had the bigger challenge ahead of him, and nearly shocked the world.

*TEAM OF THE RACE:  None.  The top eight positions were held by eight different teams.  If pressed, we suppose we'd have to give it to Ferrari.  They won the race after all, right?  But we'd prefer to go with none.

*MOVE OF THE RACE: On Lap 30, Gandalf Kobayashi was all over the back of seven-time World Champion Slappy Schumacher.  The Mercedes had lost whatever pace it had shown back in Quals, while the Sauber was proving to be rather spritely on the day.  Nevertheless, just the fact that Slappy was involved meant that any passing attempt would be difficult.

Out of Turn 4, Gandalf got better grip out of the exit of the turn and was therefore able to pile on the power faster than Slappy.

Through the entrance of Turn 5, the two were side-by-side, with Gandalf on the outside of the turn, but on the inside of the upcoming Turn 6.  The Sauber kept the power on, and though the track was dryer than it had been earlier, it was hardly dry.  Both drivers managed to keep control, and Kobayashi kept Shadowfax right alongside the Silver Arrow all the way through the long turn.

As Five turned to Six, Slappy wisely backed out of the throttle and let the youthful Japanese driver by.  A solid pass in questionable conditions, and the best one of the day.

*MOOOOOOO-OOOVE OF THE RACE: On Lap 46, Seb Vettel was in 5th place and solidly in the points.  As he blew past the lapped HRT of Narain Kittylitter, he braked hard and cut across the nose of the Indian driver.  Now, the new tire compounds brought by Pirelli are called "hard", "medium" and so forth, but to be honest, that's only in comparison to each other.  You can easily push a finger deeply into the "hard" tires.  Now, when they're rotating fast enough to make a car go 140mph and you run them over another car's carbon fiber front wing, what do you think happens?

By the time Vettel made it back to the pits and returned to the track, he had dropped to 12th, and the damage from the flailing tire carcass would eventually cause him to drop out on the final lap.  No points and while Kittylitter got penalized for the incident, Sebby should have known better than to have cut it that fine.  Here's your Mooooooooo-ooove, World Champ!



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March 18, 2012

F1 Update!: Australia 2012

In the long history of Formula 1, only 32 men are able to say that they were World Driver Champion.  Six of those champions took to the grid under sunny skies at Melbourne, over one quarter of the number of drivers in the contest.  But would we see any change from last year's Red Bull race dominance?  Or would there be a bright new day ahead?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2012 Grand Prix of Australia!
*LIGHTS OUT:  Once the mandatory flag-carrier flyby took place, and at an altitude that shows that Qantas has more sense than Etihad Airways, all attention was focused on those five little lights that would signal not only the start of the race, but the start of the longest season in F1 history.  Right away, it became obvious that some things will never change: we had a Mark Webber Lousy Start© that saw him drop all the way to the mid-field.  Up at the front, Jenson Button outdragged his pole-sitting teammate Lewis Hamilton into the first turn, and Lettuce Grosjean winds up getting shuffled back to sixth.  Into the first turn, it looked for a moment that the Thundering Herd would get through in one piece, until Bruno Senna's Williams got tipped into a spin... and worse.

Surprisingly, neither Daniel Ricciardo's Toro Rosso nor Senna's car suffered any major damage in this incident, and both were able to continue after stopping for a new nose (Ricciardo) and new tires (Senna).  On Lap 2, the races of both Nico Hulkenberg and Lettuce come to an end in separate incidents.

*BREATHE DEEP:  Up at the front of the field, we were seeing a repeat of 2011, just with a different name at the top.  Jenson Button, taking advantage of the lack of traffic in front of him, simply began to run away from the rest of the pack.  It wasn't to the same degree as Seb Vettel's 2011 dominance, but by Lap 7 the McLaren driver had a four second lead on his teammate, and nine seconds on the Mercedes of Slappy Schumacher.  Meanwhile, Vettel was finding that the RB8's handling was nothing more than ordinary, running off the grass and bringing him into a short scrum with Nico Rosberg and Ferrari's HWMNBN.  Slappy, on the other hand, discovered that his Silver Arrow was... fragile.  He drove through a gravel trap on Lap 11... and his gearbox stopped working.  This is hardly uncommon; the transmissions of a F1 car are more finely crafted than any high-end watch.  While they're built to stand up to the stresses of running during a normal race, the odd shock can sometimes cause them to either try to chose two gears at once (bad) or basically forget how to function at all (also bad).  While he got back to the pits, the seven-time Champion's day was finished.  More importantly, Seb Vettel moved into third and immediately began tracking down Lewis Hamilton.

*FIRST PITS:  As the cars began to filter into pit lane for the first tire changes of the season, it became clear that the teams had put a lot of practice into their mechanical ballet.  If anything, the tire changes are even faster than in 2011.  For example, the F1U! official notebook of the race records that Felipe Massa came in on Lap 12, and as the crew reached for a pen and began writing, Ferrari changed his tires and got him going again.  We missed his stop entirely.  There are rumors that the Mercedes team have been able to change a car's tires in less than two seconds in practice.  Astounding.  By the time the pit rotations were done, Jenson Button had solidified his lead massively, opening an 11 second gap to his teammate.  His teammate, however, only had one second in hand over the reigning Driver's Champion, and it didn't look like Vettel was going to be going away anytime soon.

*HARD LUCK SAFETY CAR:  That's how it stayed until the next round of pitstops approached around Lap 34.  On Lap 36, McLaren gambled on their mechanics, bringing both their men in for their tire change at the same time.  The gamble seemed to work; as Button pulled out of the pit box, Hamilton, some 10 seconds behind, pulled in.  What the team didn't count on was the Lotus Caterham of The Red Menace coming to a halt on the front straight just past the start/finish line.  For The Menace, this turned out to be a stroke of good fortune, as reportedly his steering column completely failed and he had a nice empty stretch of road to bring his car to a stop with.  Almost immediately, the yellow flag was thrown, and moments later the Safety Car rolled out.  Taking advantage of this, Red Bull brought in Vettel, who had taken the lead while the McLarens were pitting.  When he rejoined the field, he was in second place, having jumped Hamilton in the chaos.  After the race, neither Vettel or Hamilton were willing to say what exactly would have happened if the Safety Car hadn't come out, if Vettel would have caught the McLaren, or having caught it, passed it.  In any case, when the Safety Car came in on Lap 42, the lineup was Button, Vettel, Hamilton, Webber and HWMNBN, who was hanging on grimly in his recalcitrant Ferrari.

*RESTART HO!:  If there's one thing we learned in 2011, it's that there was nobody better during restarts than Seb Vettel.  When Berndt Maylander shut off the lights on the Mercedes SLS, Vettel got a wonderful jump, making it impossible for Lewis Hamilton, who is possibly the worst restarter in the world, to make any threatening move.  However, Jenson Button's restart wasn't shabby, and he immediately began to open up a gap on the Red Bull.  In one lap, he opened up a 2.5 second lead, and it looked like a win was locked up... as long as nothing went wrong.

*SPOKE TOO SOON:  On Lap 48, Felipe Massa and Bruno Senna were dicing for position, and by dicing, we mean "attempting to shiv each other."  When both dodged by Daniel Ricciardo, Senna tried to go around the outside of the Ferrari... who kept drifting farther and farther outside.  The inevitable inevitably occurred.

The two cars managed to get locked into each other for a good two hundred yards, maybe.  Massa's Ferrari, a massive circular scrape gouged into his right sidepod, retired shortly after making it to the pit lane.  Senna's Williams, however, has shown that it is made of sterner stuff than pretty much any car on the grid, and at least half the cars on the road today.  First it got bounced into the air on Lap 1, now this, and it still continued on.  The F1U! team held it's collective breath, waiting for a Safety Car to be called out for debris, which would again throw the last few laps into a cocked hat.  It never happened.

*FINALLY: On Lap 55 of 58, it started to look like we'd have a rather exciting finish.  Both Red Bulls were closing in on both McLarens: Vettel on Button, Webber on Hamilton.  Button's lead over Vettel had dropped to two seconds, and Webber was in DRS range of Hamilton.  It later came out that both of the Glare With Wheels were short on fuel, though at this point the team told Button that he was good to finish the race.  By Lap 56, he had tacked another second onto his lead.  Hamilton and Webber, on the other hand, stayed close all the way to the end, just unable to get close enough to make the DRS advantage work.  In the end, it was Button, Vettel, Hamilton, Webber and HWMNBN.  Alas, The Williams That Wouldn't Die retired on Lap 56, presumably of exhaustion.

The mad scramble that arose for the final three points-paying positions between four cars was just icing on the cake of a wonderful first race of the season.

*DRIVER OF THE RACE:  One would think that Jenson Button would win this with his clear victory today.  One would be wrong.  The Ferrari F2012 is an ill-tempered beast.  It's not fast enough nor is it nimble enough.  It has no grip.  It chews through its tires in a ridiculously short amount of time.  There's no way it should be able to contend for anything other than midpack honors.  But there sits HWMNBN in 5th, a good 15 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor.  All day, he kept his Lame Horse in the mix where a poorly-turned wheel or unforseen technical glitch or two would have put him on the podium.  Gotta respect that, particularly when his teammate could never even get into the top 10 all race.

*TEAM OF THE RACE: McLaren.  In preseason testing, they looked the class of the field.  In the first race of the season, they proved it.  Only an unlucky break with the safety car cost them a 1-2 finish.  While they don't seem to be as dominant as Red Bull were last year, they do indeed appear to be the best... but it's close enough that it should prove to be an exciting dominance.

*MOVE OF THE RACE: On Lap 25, Gandalf Kobayashi was busy being a thorn in the side of HWMNBN.  He was just fast enough to threaten, but maybe not quite fast enough to pass, the Ferrari.  Around halfway through the lap, he made a try on the outside to the outside of a turn, heedless of the lurking Renault Lotus of Mumbles Raikkonen behind.

This attempt failed when HWMNBN pushed him far outside, forcing Gandalf to either brake or end up in the kittylitter.  He touched the brakes.

His momentary loss of headway gave former World Champion Raikkonen all the impetus he needed.  He lunged for the opening left to the right of the Sauber and kept the power on.

Even though he could have been forced outside by Gandalf, much like what happened with the Ferrari, the difference was that Mumbles had the racing line.  An opportunistic move from a driver called "Iceman" by his peers for the cold-blooded way he drives... welcome back, and here's your MotR! 

*MOOOOOO-OOOVE OF THE RACE: On the final lap of the race, Pastor Maldonado had a chance to take 5th away from HWMNBN.  The two had been fighting madly, with the superior driving skills of the Ferrari driver looking like they would be enough to keep the Venezuelan behind.  The Williams driver looked to be getting ready for one last desperate lunge, though, when he got a little too much of the outside of a turn.  The result of this unforced error?

A hard head-first impact with the barriers and a throwing away of the best finish for a Williams in three years.  While we can't fault him for trying, we can hand Pastor Maldodo a Moo.  Good jorb!



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