October 30, 2016

F1 Update!: Mexico 2016

The weather at Mexico City's Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was basically perfect for a F1 race.  Mix in the drama of a last-gasp championship fight between teammates, and you should have a recipe for a tense, dramatic race.   What we got was an example of everything wrong with Formula 1.  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Grand Prix of Mexico!

*CAVALCADE OF ERRORS:  The confusion began right at the beginning of the race.  Polesitter Lewis Hamilton won the drag race to the first turn, mostly because his teammate Nico Rosberg was having to defend against the Red Bull of Embryo Verstappen.  To do so, he wound up bumping wheels with the Dutchman and having to take evasive action.  But that little action was overshadowed by the more obvious faux pas made by Hamilton.  He locked up a tire trying to make the first turn... and failed.  Instead of attempting to regain the track, he went ahead and kept right on going.

This is known in most circles as "blowing the turn."  In some others, it's called "agricultural racing."  In a tiny amount, it's known as "Susan", for reasons we do not wish to contemplate.  In any case, when one blows a turn that dramatically, a driver is usually instructed to give up any advantage gained.  For example, if by Susaning you actually pass an opponent, you have to give up the position.  In this case, Hamilton was told no such thing.  While he was in the lead approaching Turn 1, and thus gained no positions by his offroading, he did open quite the gap to second.  Indeed, he didn't slow down until a Virtual Safety Car was called out for an unrelated incident.  No penalty given, nor even considered.

*ERRORS (CONTINUED):  The race settled down to the usual Mercedes - Mercedes - Red Bull format, in this case Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, with Seb Vettel in fourth.  Indeed, Hamilton was never in danger of being caught at any time and would go on to win the race with nary a worry.  However, Rosberg, Verstappen, Vettel, and Smiley Ricciardo would not be quite so fortunate.  At one point, Verstappen took advantage of traffic up ahead to make a move for second on Rosberg, but blew the turn and Rosberg took the position back.  In effect, this allowed the Ferrari of Vettel to close the gap so he could attack Verstappen.  Behind them, Ricciardo was in position to take advantage of any mistake, but not quite close enough to force a move.  After the Ferrari driver had lined up Verstappen, he made a strong effort to take third as they raced down to Turn 1 with only a couple of laps to go.  It looked like he had pulled it off when the Red Bull locked up and carried straight on. 

Verstappen just kept on going, rejoining the track ahead of Vettel and keeping third place.  Remember what we said about "relinquishing the position"?  This was a textbook case of that principle, about as clear-cut as it could possibly be.  A furious Vettel would take to the radio waves, screaming that he had to give up the spot.  In fact, it went so far that the German took to swearing at Race Director Charlie Whiting via radio after the race was over.  But that was still a couple of laps in the future. 

*ERRORS (YUP ONE MORE):  Only a few moments later Smiley Ricciardo tried his luck at passing Vettel.  On one hand, both stayed on track.  On the other hand, Vettel did some rather dodgy moving around in the braking zone, eventually interweaving tires with the Red Bull.

Mind you, this was after the two bumped wheel hubs.  How one or the other didn't wind up launching into low-earth orbit through this sequence was beyond us.  In the end, Vettel held the spot, Smiley backed off, probably in fear of his life, and the race ended Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, Vettel, Ricciardo.

*HOLD IT RIGHT THERE:  But we're not finished yet!  As the three podium drivers gathered in the green room before the ceremonies, a camera caught sight of Seb Vettel jogging from the garages to the podium area.  Meanwhile, a FIA official said something in Verstappen's ear and led him from the room as the two McLaren drivers watched.  Sure enough, Vettel ended up taking the third step on the podium.  It turned out that Verstappen was given a five-second time penalty for not relinquishing the position after cutting Turn 1.  This dropped him from third to fifth, behind Ricciardo.  But wait, we're not done!  Immediately after, both Vettel and Ricciardo were summoned to the steward's office to discuss their incident.  Shortly thereafter, the FIA released a statement giving Vettel a 10-second time penalty for his less-than-kosher activities defending against the Red Bull driver.  After the penalty was applied, RICCIARDO moved into third place, Verstappen to fourth, and Vettel ended up in fifth.

*AWFUL:  So why was Verstappen penalized for doing the same thing Hamilton did?  The general response has been "because Hamilton did it on the first lap."  To be sure, first laps are hectic... back when F1U! did "Move of the Race", anything done on the first lap was not considered... but rules should be applied evenly.  But there is one quick and easy solution to this sort of problem.  Bring back gravel traps.  Make going off-track actually cost something for the drivers.  It won't happen, particularly after Alonso's wild ride back in Australia, but it'd solve everything.

Next race is Brazil, where a victory means that Rosberg clinches the championship.  That'll be in two weeks!  See ya then.

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October 23, 2016

F1 Update!: United States 2016

The clear blue sky was a far sight from what greeted the F1 Circus last year as they pulled onto the grid of Circuit of the Americas.  As usual, Lewis Hamilton led the field, with his teammate Nico Rosberg right beside him.  Behind them, the surging Red Bulls lurked.  Could they derail the championship fight going on between the two Mercedes drivers?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 United States Grand Prix!

*LIGHTS OUT:  To be honest, the race was decided at the very beginning.  Once the race started, Hamilton galloped away, but Rosberg got swamped by the Red Bull of Smiley Ricciardo.  He fell to third, and nearly fourth as Embryo Verstappen threatened his position as well.  And that's the way it stayed for nearly half the race.

*SCREWUP:  On Lap 25, Ricciardo pitted from second for a new set of tires.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  On the next lap, though, Verstappen drove into the pit lane... and there was nobody there for him.  The team recovered quickly, swarming into the Red Bull pit box just as he approached the spot, but they were essentially unprepared for the young driver.  The stop took nearly 10 seconds to complete, which sounds fast, but when 2.50 seconds is the norm... well.  As he pulled back onto the track he was on the radio: "I'm sorry, I thought you told me to box (pit)."  Simple driver error deep-sixed his race.  A few laps later, he unintentionally deep-sixed his teammate's race as well.

*BLOWUP:  On Lap 30, Verstappen's Red Bull was spotted going very slowly down the long back straight.  A cut to the onboard camera made the problem quite clear: a loud thumping sound was coming from the engine.  "I have an engine problem or something" was the radio call.  In fact, it was his gearbox turning itself into a bunch of neutrals.  In fact, first gear was the only one remaining, and he could not get into the actual neutral.  As this is required for trackworkers to get the car behind the walls, even though Verstappen had stopped just in front of an access point Race Control had to issue a Virtual Safety Car so marshals could deal with the recalcitrant vehicle.  Not a big deal normally... but neither Mercedes had stopped for tires yet.  In effect, they got a free stop, allowing Rosberg to easily jump Ricciardo on the rotation.  After that, it was all over but the shouting.

*THE SHOUTING
:  While there was still half the race distance to complete, nothing of any importance happened up front.  Lewis Hamilton won his 50th Grand Prix, his seventh victory of the year, and his fourth out of five races at COTA.  However, Nico Rosberg finished second, five seconds behind, limiting his teammate's point gain in the Championship.  He still has a 26-point lead with three races to go... and you get 25 points for first, 18 for second.  Essentially, Hamilton needs Rosberg to have a breakdown to have a chance of repeating as Driver's Champion.  Smiley Ricciardo finished a distant third, Ferrari's Seb Vettel was fourth over a half-lap back of the leader, and Fernando Alonso's McLaren was fifth even though he could probably see Hamilton's Merc in his side mirrors when the race ended.  And in the feelgood story of the race, American team HaasF1 scored a point at their home race when Lettuce Grosjean came home in 10th.

So that's it from a lackluster USGP.  Next weekend is the second running of the reborn Grand Prix of Mexico.  We'll see you then.

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October 09, 2016

F1 Update!: Japan 2016

A gray, overcast day greeted the F1 Circus as they pulled up to the starting grid on Suzuka's front straight.  It had rained earlier in the day, and while most of the track was dry, there were still patches here and there that were discolored and slightly damp.  Most of these were on the inside of the front straight, the side that Lewis Hamilton would be starting the race from.  That's because his teammate Nico Rosberg was on pole.  Would that make a difference to Hamilton's start in this, a nearly must-win situation if he wanted to challenge for the Driver's Championship?  Or would he jump to the early lead?  Or would one of the resurgent Red Bulls, poised and ready on the second row, have something to say about the matter?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Grand Prix of Japan!

*LIGHTS OUT
: After the race, Lewis Hamilton said that the slightly damp track made no difference to his start.  That's unfortunate, for it means that he completely peed it down the leg of his firesuit on his own.  As Rosberg made a perfectly nice getaway, his teammate bogged down so hard it was like he was starting from the Goshikinuma Swamps.  Speaking of swamp, that's exactly what the field did to Hamilton, sending him plummeting to eighth place before Turn 1.  While he would soon begin the long process of digging himself out of the hole he had buried himself in, it looked like he would be lucky to be on the podium, let alone win.  Meanwhile, Rosberg took off into the distance ahead of Embryo Verstappen.  By Lap 4, he had a three second lead.

*THE MIDDLE:  And then the race settled down.  Most passing up at the front took place when people made their pit stops.  Indeed, most of the front runners had the lead at one time or another as their opponents stopped before them.  Even Hamilton had the lead for a lap at one point.  It was the final round of stops that proved to be the most important.

*TO THE END:  Thanks to a fast in-lap and a quick pit stop, Mercedes managed to get Hamilton back out onto track in fourth, just ahead of Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.  A couple of laps later, Seb Vettel pitted from the lead and rejoined the race... in fourth, just behind Hamilton.  Suddenly the situation looked promising for the reigning Driver's Champion.  With 13 laps to go, he was on a fresh set of Hard tires, in third, and three seconds ahead was the second-place Red Bull of Embryo Verstappen.  He too was on Hard tires, but importantly they were some five laps older than Hamilton's.  The Mercedes driver was pushing like every lap was a qualifying lap, burning through his tires at a furious rate, all the while knowing that his target had to do the same thing to defend... and his tires were going to last longer.  With four laps to go, the strategy had paid off: he was a half-second behind the young Dutchman.

*THE END:  Hamilton needed to be glued to the gearbox of the Red Bull to have a shot at passing him down the front straight.  For a handful of laps, he would be in position at the start of the Casio Triangle chicane, but by the end he had lost enough ground that he couldn't quite make the move.  On the penultimate lap, he decided to force the matter.  Coming to the chicane, he feinted to the inside.  Verstappen duly placed himself so as to cover the move, and Hamilton made his real pass attempt to the outside... at which point, he went straight on, taking the run-off road through the chicane, rejoining quite a distance behind the youngster.  "He moved under braking" was the radio call from Hamilton immediately after.  After watching the replays more than a few times, it's pretty clear that the Red Bull driver did nothing of the sort.  Mercedes filed a protest with the Stewards, but later pulled it after Hamilton disagreed with it.  Apparently he watched the replays as well.

*THE VERY END:  Six seconds up the road from Verstappen cruised Nico Rosberg.  He had, essentially, led the race from beginning to end (pesky pit stop rotation excluded) with no threats past the first hundred meters of the race.  The win, combined with his teammate's third place finish, puts him 33 points up in the Driver's Championship with four races to go.  Even if Hamilton sweeps the rest of the season, if Rosberg finishes second he'll still win.  Meanwhile, their team, Mercedes, clinched their third Constructor's Championship on the trot.  True dominance.

When we next meet, we'll need our Stetsons and spurs, 'cause we'll be in Austin Texas for a Taylor Swift concert!  Oh, and the US Grand Prix, too... see ya then!

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October 02, 2016

F1 Update!: Malaysia 2016

A slightly cloudy day greeted the assembled F1 Circus as they rolled into their positions on the starting grid.  It had even cooled off somewhat, all the way down to 91° with high humidity!  That was the ambient air temperature, though... the track surface, which radiates its heat like nobody's business, was 131°.  It was so hot that there were concerns that the tires would work very well, but degrade at an increased rate.  Polesitter Lewis Hamilton and his teammate Nico Rosberg, the current Driver's Championship points leader, were side-by-side, staring down at the first turn.  Which would seize the early advantage and be the first through it?  And would the twin Red Bulls, directly behind them, have anything to say about the matter?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Grand Prix of Malaysia!

*LIGHTS... OUT?:  Before the race began, the heat was causing problems.  The Williams of Retired Massa stalled on the grid as the field went off on their recon lap and was pushed to the pit lane.  The team would get him restarted, but he would be forced to start from there.  That was probably for the best, because the start itself was a shambles.  First came a very long pause before the starting lights began to illuminate.  When the field is judged to be correctly positioned on the grid in preparation for the start, the Race Director presses a button.  That button triggers the start sequence, which includes a random amount of time from press to first light.  On this occasion, the random amount of time was the longest we've ever seen, somewhere between five and 10 seconds perhaps.  It was long enough that the Legendary Announce Team was assuming the start had been aborted for some reason.  When the five lights finally illuminated then extinguished, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both made good getaways, the two Red Bulls slightly less so.  But the Ferrari of Seb Vettel, starting fifth, made a stormer and charged up the inside approaching the first turn.  The problem was, he didn't have the brakes to do what needed to be done and wound up running directly into the side of Rosberg as he began the turn.  The Mercedes wound up facing the wrong way and dead last, the Ferrari's front left suspension was turned to mashed potatoes, and Lewis Hamilton had to be thinking that he would be leading the championship in a couple of hours.

*THE MUDDLE IN THE MIDDLE:  While Hamilton cruised at the front of the field, the two Red Bull drivers were engaged in a knife fight for second that lasted most of the race.  First Smiley Ricciardo, then Embryo Verstappen, then Ricciardo again, held second place, while the other driver tried to figure out a way to get by without pissing off the pit wall.  At one point, the two of them were side-by-side going through the complex of twisty turns at the start of a lap at Sepang, but the Australian managed to hold on to second place at the end of it.  Meanwhile, the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was lurking behind them.  Soon enough, however, Nico Rosberg was back and hounding the Ferrari driver for the spot.

*TEN SECONDS:  The two played fox and hound for a good while.  Rosberg, realizing his chances of a podium and trying to keep pace with his obviously-winning teammate in the championship, made a move on Lap 38.  He dove to the inside of a left-hand turn, hip-checked the Ferrari out of the way, and took the position.  The race stewards took a dim view of the physicality involved with the move and handed the Mercedes driver a 10 second penalty... meaning that amount of time would be added to his final amount.  If Raikkonen could finish within 10 seconds of him, he'd get fourth place, not Rosberg.  The Merc began to pull away, but slowly.

*KABLAMMO:  And then something occurred that changed everything

On Lap 40, a radio call came in from Lewis Hamilton: "Oh no, no, no, no!"  His engine lost power, a stream of smoke come from the rear, which was soon joined by a burst of flame, probably as the turbocharger grenaded itself.  His lead over second place was over 12 seconds at the time.  Suddenly the little tiff the two Red Bulls had had a few laps earlier was looking very important indeed, and the Rosberg/Raikkonen dust-up was for the the final step of the podium.

*THE END: Lap after lap, Verstappen lurked close behind Ricciardo, at one point even closing down to DRS range.  But either he couldn't make a move, or was told not to, because he eventually dropped back and finished the race a couple of seconds back.  Behind them, Kimi Raikkonen gave it a good effort, but eventually the advantages of the Mercedes took their toll and Rosberg opened his lead over the Ferrari to over 12 seconds and thus finished third.

*AFTERMATH:  "I can't believe that there's eight Mercedes-powered cars and only my engines have gone," Hamilton said afterwards.  "Something doesn't feel right.  But it's just odd.  There's been 43 engines for Mercedes and only mine have gone.  Someone has to give me answers, and it is not acceptable.  Something or someone doesn't want me to win this year."  Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a conspiracy theory!  Hamilton now trails Rosberg by 23 points with five races remaining and a maximum 125 points left to play for.  This is only the second race this season won by someone other than the Mercedes drivers, and both of those wins were by Red Bull. 

Next week, we're going to be in Japan, and you'd best believe that Hamilton is pissed.  We'll see you down the road!

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