May 29, 2016

F1 Update!: Monaco 2016

The beautiful blue skies of the Côte d'Azur stretched from horizon to horizon far above the Principality of Monaco, clear and serene.  Somewhat lower in altitude, however, was an unbroken swath of clouds, and they were in the process of dropping a measurable percentage of the Mediterranean Sea over the one-time quaint French fishing village.  Normally, this is hardly a concern: perhaps the ultra-wealthy residents of may be limited in their helicopter usage, but they could always use their megayachts instead, or just have another bottle of champagne in the Casino.  Today, though, the streets of the second-smallest sovereign nation in the world were in the hands of the Formula 1 circus, and the rain meant very very different things to them.  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix!

*LIGHTS OUT... WELLLL...:  The rain, which had been torrential in the hours leading up to the start of the race, was merely steady and constant when Race Director Charlie Whiting extinguished the lights.  Instead of the usual mad scramble to get into Ste Devote before disaster occurs, this time the field set off behind the Safety Car, driven by birthday boy Bernd Maylander.  The problem wasn't the rain that was falling, but the rain that had already come down.  Monaco is, of course, a street circuit in the purest sense of the term, and drainage is not to the levels of purpose-built circuits.  Remember, last year's US Grand Prix weekend was run in biblical amounts of rain, to the point that the area around the circuit was under flood warnings.  Yet come race day the track was perfectly serviceable.  Not so Monaco: some portions of the city streets had puddles of standing water that would be perfectly manageable in an everyday car, yet would send a F1 machine hieing off into the barriers or beyond in a moment.  So as the rain tapered off, the increasingly disgruntled field trundled around town in the world's most expensive car parade.  Finally, on Lap 7, Maylander brought the Safety Car into the pits and the race began in earnest.

*AND THEY'RE OFF... WAIT, NOT SO FAST!
:  It took no time at all for the still-wet track to claim a victim.  Renault's Jolyon Palmer made it as far as the approach to Ste Devote before his car swerved left into the armco barriers in what was a surprisingly hard impact.  Not only was his nose assembly destroyed, there was some visible damage to the chassis behind the nose crash structure as well.  Immediately, a portion of the 280 marshals used for the race, all of whom are considered the best in the world, descended upon the accident site to begin cleanup, and a Virtual Safety Car was implemented.  This state of affairs lasted for two more laps, until Lap 9.

*AND THEY'RE OFF... WAIT FOR IT... YES, WE'RE GOOD:  Free of all constraints and on the full-wet tires, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo went galloping off over the horizon while the Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton fought among themselves for second.  He had a three second lead over the two after one lap, and had opened a 13 second gap after five more.  It wasn't so much that the Red Bull was dominating, as it appeared that Rosberg was having difficulties.  Apparently suffering from brake overheating, he just couldn't keep up with the Red Bull driver... but he could keep everybody behind him easily enough: Monaco is famous for being nigh-on impossible to pass upon.  Until, finally, Mercedes told him to let Hamilton by.  Immediately the gap to the leader began to drop.

*ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, I DECLARE A TIRE WAR:  Tire choice in F1 is always a huge component of race strategy, but in wet but drying conditions they can make or break a race.  As early as Lap 7, some drivers thought that Intermediate tires were sufficient for the track.  As more and more cars pitted, more and more Inters became the norm... but the two leaders were still pelting around the circuit on the Full Wets.  On Lap 23, Ricciardo pitted for fresh Inters, giving Hamilton the race lead.  Within seven laps, the Australian was nipping at the Brit's heels, the Full Wets clearly not the right choice anymore... but more and more, it was becoming clear that neither were the Inters.  An obviously visible dry line had formed on the circuit and it was only a matter of time before someone made the move to dry weather Slick tires in one of the three available compounds.  Hamilton's strategy became clear: run on the Full Wets until he could make the jump right to the slicks.  If he could manage to keep his speeds up in the process, he'd make one less pit stop than his rivals, all of whom had gone to Inters, and thereby save about 20 seconds or so in the process.  On Lap 30, Sony Erickson made the move to the new Ultrasoft tires and appeared to have no difficulties with them.  On the next lap, Hamilton made the move to ultrasofts as well.

*DAGNABBIT!:  On Lap 32, Daniel Ricciardo brought his Red Bull into the pits to change onto slicks as well.  As he pulled to a stop, he was stunned to see his old tires come off... and nothing get put on in their place.  The team strategists, seeing Hamilton on the ultras, changed plans on the fly, wanting instead to put their man on the more durable Supersofts.  In theory, he could run the rest of the way on them, while Hamilton would probably have to stop one more time.  Great idea, one that would nullify the Mercedes driver's advantage gained by going from Full Wets to Slicks... except that it occurred at the last moment, and the supersofts were at the back of the garage.  As Ricciardo pulled into his pit stall, the tires were only just being pulled off the rack by the mechanics.  Instead of just being slapped on as the old ones came off, they had to be brought out to the car. The pitstop dragged on and on, every second ticking by bringing Hamilton closer and closer to the front straight.  When Ricciardo finally pulled off pit lane and back on track, what had been a sure 10 second lead had turned into an one second deficit.

*FRUSTRATION:  Which didn't mean that the Aussie had given up... far from it.  He was all over the back of the Silver Arrow for lap after lap, aided in part by three Virtual Safety Car sessions.  The first came out when Red Bull teammate Embryo Verstappen  plonked the wall for the third time during race weekend.  From race winner to race failure in one race... still, not so bad for an 18 year old.  The second was for debris on the track, the third for, unbelievably, a tarp on the circuit.  Each time the VSC was called, Ricciardo was able to pull back the gap to Hamilton (never very large in any case), and the race would be back on.

*FINALLY:  The tires on both Hamilton and Ricciardo's cars were looking ragged indeed as the final laps ticked down.  Neither driver, of course, ever thought of stopping again, as that would not only throw away the race win, but probably drop them down to fourth.  Behind the two leaders, the surprising Force India of Sergio Perez and the Ferrari of Seb Vettel were locked in a similar duel, and only 10 seconds back.  Eventually, and not a little surprisingly, it was the supposedly more durable supersofts on the Red Bull that gave up the ghost first, dropping Ricciardo farther and farther behind Hamilton.  The reigning World Champion took the checkered flag some seven seconds ahead of the crushed polesitter.  Behind those two, Force India racked up their fourth ever podium, with Sergio Perez finishing only a couple of seconds ahead of Vettel.  McLaren's Fernando Alonso finished fifth, and the other Force India, this of Nico Hulkenberg, passed a struggling Nico Rosberg at the last possible instant for sixth.

*SELECTED DRIVER QUOTES OF THE RACE:

"It didn't feel lucky to me.  Hang on, I gotta say hi to Justin Bieber over there." - Lewis Hamilton

"I just want to get the hell out of here, to be honest." - Daniel Ricciardo (note: real quote)

"Holy crap, I don't even care that there isn't an actual podium here in Monaco, I'm on the podium at Monaco!" - Sergio Perez

"Not only didn't I get a podium, but a friggin' Force India beat me to it?  Sunuva..." - Seb Vettel

"Monaco: it's a magical place." - Fernando Alonso

"Never give up, never surrender!" - Nico Hulkenberg

"Oh bite me, fanboy." - Nico Rosberg

In two weeks, we'll be on the third stop of the European calendar: Montreal?  Wha?  See ya then!

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May 15, 2016

F1 Update: Spain 2016

Another perfect day greeted the Thundering Herd as they approached the grid at Barcalounger.  Reigning Champion Lewis Hamilton, desperate for a win, led the field, but his Mercedes teammate and current points leader Nico Rosberg was right next to him on the grid.  It looked like another Merc one-two was in the offing, particularly since Ferrari had managed to relinquish the second row to Red Bull somehow.  So what happened?  Who's speed reigned supreme?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Grand Prix of Spain!

*LIGHTS OUT:  Hamilton had a flawless start and led his hard-charging teammate into Turn 1, a lead that lasted no longer than that.  Rosberg, on the grippy side of the track, managed to keep his speed higher through the turn and passed the Brit.  And then it happened.  Rosberg, his engine apparently in the wrong power setting, dumped power as it began to harvest power for the batteries.  Hamilton suddenly had a 10mph advantage over the leader and dove to the right.  Rosberg moved that way as well in a legal block, but Hamilton, committed continued onwards... and onto the grass.

Traction totally lost, Hamilton went sideways in an uncontrolled slide.  More importantly, he lost almost no speed in this skid, while Rosberg slowed to make the upcoming turn.

Hamilton's car, completely nonresponsive to anything the driver did, collected Rosberg.  Now both Mercedes were sideways, damaged, and headed for the kittylitter.

The two dominant cars of the 2016 season were out of the race.

*TRYING AGAIN:  After the safety car returned to the pit lane, Red Bull's Smiley Ricciardo led his new teammate, former Toro Rosso driver Embryo Verstappen, a hot-starting Carlos Sainz, Seb Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen back to racing.  Within a few laps, Sainz would be passed by both Vettel and Raikkonen, leaving the race to boil down to Ferrari vs Red Bull.

*STRATEGERY:  Soon enough it became apparent that the two teams were evenly matched.  The Red Bulls led, the Ferraris followed, but neither could really gain an advantage on the other.  With the cars and drivers equal, it was going to be a true Team vs Team race: the guys in the pit lanes were going to make a difference, maybe a race-winning one.  The first round of stops went smoothly, but something small occurred on Lap 24 that changed everything.

*TO THE MANOR BORN:  Rio Rainbow Gate! was Manoring his way around the circuit some handful of seconds slower than the leaders, believing himself to be a true F1 driver instead of one that has a seat by dint of Indonesian national funding.  As he pedaled his way through the lap, Smiley Ricciardo had caught up to him.  The problem was, he couldn't get past.  Turbulence from the Manor kept washing out the Red Bull's grip in the turns, and down the long straights, the Mercedes engine gave the backmarker a 7mph speed advantage.  By the time Rio Rainbow Gate! let Ricciardo past, Embryo Verstappen and Seb Vettel had both taken a second off of the leader.  Now all three were covered by less than two seconds, with Raikkonen a bit further back.

*C-C-C-CHANGES
:  At this point, Red Bull made a pit-wall decision, one that had long-reaching consequences for the race: they split the pit stop strategies on the fly.  They moved the leader to a three-stop strategy, counting on fresher tires to allow their man to make up the time lost in the extra stop.  Meanwhile, they kept Embryo Verstappen, in second place, on a two-stop strategy.  The tires needed to pull this off would be slower, but with one fewer stop to make... well.  Ferrari, reacting to Red Bull's move, pitted third-place Seb Vettel early to cover.  The question now became: which strategy would be faster at the finish line?  Two stops or three?

*FOOLED YA:  Vettel only stayed out for eight laps on the soft tires he had put on to mirror Ricciardo.  By pitting early, he managed to undercut the Red Bull driver; by the time Smiley would pit, Vettel had managed to use the pit lane to get past for third.  Ricciardo had gone from the lead to fourth, thanks to a strategy he had no call on.

*ON THE OTHER HAND: Verstappen and Raikkonen, on the two-stop strategies, were now out in front of their teammates... and it quickly became clear that the Ferraris were just a bit quicker than the Red Bulls.  The problem was, as it often is, turbulence.  The Finn couldn't quite get close enough to make a move on the leader, and Vettel was able to keep his Australian rival behind him, though doing so required quite a bit of effort.  And so the four sat, Verstappen - Raikkonen - 10 second gap - Vettel - Ricciardo, for lap after lap.  One error by anybody would allow the others to capitalize instantly... and as the fifth place driver was nearly 40 seconds adrift of Smiley, they were the only ones who would benefit from a mistake.

*IN THE END
:  The error ended up being nobody's fault... and made the least amount of difference possible.  Ricciardo picked up some debris and his left-rear tire let go.  He was able to nurse his car around the last third of the track, make the pits, and return to the race still in fourth, but Vettel was no longer in danger.  Ahead of them, Raikkonen had hovered less than a second behind Embryo Verstappen for lap after lap, trying to pressure the youngest driver in F1 history into a mistake or an opening... and being unable to do so.  Verstappen was flawless, never locking a tire, never missing a line through the turns, never giving the Finn the opening he so desperately needed.  When he took the checkered flag, some .600 seconds ahead of the Ferrari driver, he became the first Dutchman to win a F1 race and the youngest driver ever to win (taking that title from Seb Vettel).  Not bad for someone who had never even driven his F1 car before Friday's practice due to being promoted from Toro Rosso a week earlier.

*OH, THAT:  So what of the man Verstappen had traded teams with, Kid Kvyat?  He finished in 10th, but he did something no Toro Rosso driver had ever done: he turned fast lap of the race.  In other bits and pieces of interest, Haas F1's Esteban! finished his first race of the season, ending up in 11th.  Lettuce Grosjean, the other Haas driver, had to retire with brake failure.

*AFTER-ACTION:  The FIA stewards judged the Mercedes accident to be a racing incident, no penalties to be handed out.  And Embryo Verstappen... well:


We'll leave the writeup with that.

Next race is in two weeks, at the spiritual home of Formula 1: MONACO.  See ya then!

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May 01, 2016

F1 Update: Russia 2016

A partly sunny and cool day greeted the F1 Circus as they made their way around the Bolshoi Ice Dome, heading towards the start/finish line of the Sochi Autodrom.  The Mercedes of Nico Rosberg led the field, riding high on a six-race win streak while his teammate and erstwhile main rival for the championship, Lewis Hamilton, was far back in the field.  Would a German finally win in Russia?  THIS is your F1 Update! for the 2016 Grand Prix of Russia!

*LIGHTS OUT:  We're not going to lie, the race was interesting for a grand total of two turns.  It was in that second turn that the expected demolition derby occurred, sending multiple cars into the pits for replacement parts.  It also ended the race of Rio Rainbow Gate, Nico Hulkenberg, and Ferrari's Seb Vettel.  The German was taken out of the race by counteroffensives from Kid Kyvat, defending his home circuit.  The Red Bull driver hit Vettel once in Turn 2, tipping him into a half-spin, then nailed him a second time a very short time later, knocking the red car into the wall and ending his day.  Vettel then voiced his opinion of the incident on team radio... fortunately, the profanities were bleeped out, protecting ears across the world.  In the melee, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton advanced from 10th on the grid at the start to fifth.  The safety car that was called out lasted for three laps.

*RESTART:  The safety car left the track, and the restart went the way it always does: the leader manages to dash away, leaving the car in second to desperately try to claw back any ground lost to third place.  Meanwhile, Hamilton quickly took fourth, then third place three laps later.  The fight for second place, with the Williams of Valterri Bottas would take much longer.

*FOREGONE CONCLUSION: In fact, it took until Lap 19, at which point Hamilton dropped a nice move on the Finn for second.  However, their squabbling over the position meant that they had no way of challenging the leader... an opening that Nico Rosberg took full advantage of.  After he had stopped for new tires and returned to the race, he had a 12 second lead over his teammate.  While it would drop as low as seven seconds on Lap 35, one never got the sense that Hamilton had the ability to get past Rosberg, let alone catch him... his long-term fight over second place with the similarly-engined Williams made that clear.  Indeed, Hamilton was a distant 25 seconds behind when the race finished, only six seconds clear of a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen in third.  Bottas was fourth, followed by Felipe Not Nasr Massa, his Williams teammate.  A pleasant sight in sixth place was the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, followed by the Renault of Kevin Magnussen... the first points for that team this season.  Haas continued their amazing debut with Lettuce Grosjean finishing in eighth, ahead of the Force India of Sergio Perez, and Jenson Button put the second McLaren in the points as well with its 10th place finish.

*FINAL THOUGHTS
:  This race was a dog from beginning to end.  When Vaucaunson's Duck is sending us pictures of his cat ignoring the race, you know it's bad, and it really was.  It's an awful track, filled with boring turns, and we couldn't even count on tire wear to liven it up... a set of super-soft tires could last 25 laps here, out of 52.  Russia is in the rear-view mirror, thankfully, and we'll next be in Spain.  Catalunya isn't much better, but we'll be beginning the European leg of the calendar, which means upgrades.  It'll be a whole new game then.  See you there.

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