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Alonso quickest in shortened FP1 in Austin

Fernando Alonso was fastest in a delayed and shortened FP1 in Austin, Texas (Image: Ferrari)

Fernando Alonso was fastest in a delayed and shortened FP1 in Austin, Texas (Image: Ferrari)

Fernando Alonso set the pace in a delayed and shortened Free Practice 1 session at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Jenson Button was second fastest for McLaren, ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who was third for Williams.

The circuit was shrouded in heavy mist at the scheduled start time of the session. The conditions were too poor for the medical helicopter to take off, which meant the start of the session had to be delayed.

40 minutes after the scheduled start time, conditions had improved enough for practice to get underway. It was announced at that point that the session would be shortened to an hour as a result of the late start. Heikki Kovalainen was first out on track, keen to get as much mileage under his belt as he acclimatizes to the Lotus team after being drafted in to replace Kimi Raikkonen, who has undergone surgery on his back and is out for the remainder of the season.

All of the drivers did at least one lap before returning to the pits. The McLarens of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez made good use of the early running time, racking up as many laps as possible in the 15 minutes before the red flag came out and the session was stopped.

The cause of the stoppage was soon revealed: the medical helicopter, quite apart from not being able to take off, had not even arrived. The session had only started at all because the helicopter had apparently been on its way to the track, but when the drivers started to set quick lap times and the helicopter had not arrived, race control had no choice but to halt the session on the grounds of safety.

Half an hour later the medical helicopter finally arrived and the session could continue. When the green flag came out, there were just 32 minutes remaining in the session, as it had to be further shortened to finish by 11am local time, as F1 regulations require a break of at least 2 hours between F1 sessions and FP2 is scheduled for 2pm.

At the end of the combined 47 minute practice session, Fernando Alonso was quickest for Ferrari, demonstrating that his aching back is not affecting his ability to drive on the limit. Jenson Button completed 25 laps, more than any other driver, and set the second fastest lap time in the session. Valtteri Bottas was an impressive third for Williams.

Heikki Kovalainen, in his first practice session for Lotus, was just a quarter of a second off the pace of his team-mate, Romain Grosjean. Considering that Kovalainen had never driven the Lotus E21 before today, that is an impressive performance from the Finn.

Daniil Kvyat made his F1 weekend debut, driving Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso in FP1 just a week after earning his FIA Super Licence. Kvyat will race for Toro Rosso in 2014. Other drivers who subbed in for the session were Rodolfo Gonzalez, who drove Jules Bianchi’s Marussia, and Alexander Rossi, who took over Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham in front of his home crowd.

Gonzalez coasted to a halt in the closing stages of the session as his Marussia’s engine switched off to protect itself from imminent failure. That was the only on-track incident of the session.

Full result from FP1:

Pos No Driver Team Time Gap Laps
1 3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:38.343 16
2 5 Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:38.371 0.028 25
3 17 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1:38.388 0.045 17
4 12 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari 1:38.532 0.189 18
5 9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.657 0.314 21
6 10 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:38.979 0.636 21
7 4 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:39.005 0.662 17
8 2 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:39.083 0.740 17
9 11 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari 1:39.158 0.815 17
10 16 Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1:39.200 0.857 15
11 8 Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1:39.238 0.895 13
12 6 Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes 1:39.256 0.913 17
13 7 Heikki Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 1:39.487 1.144 18
14 15 Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:39.699 1.356 15
15 14 Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1:39.836 1.493 15
16 19 Daniel Ricciardo STR-Ferrari 1:39.863 1.520 19
17 18 Daniil Kvyat STR-Ferrari 1:40.065 1.722 20
18 1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:40.662 2.319 21
19 21 Alexander Rossi Caterham-Renault 1:41.399 3.056 21
20 23 Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth 1:41.605 3.262 19
21 20 Charles Pic Caterham-Renault 1:42.054 3.711 19
22 22 Rodolfo Gonzalez Marussia-Cosworth 1:43.716 5.373 17

Vettel sprinting towards 2013 title

It's looking ever more likely that Sebastian Vettel will be 2013 World Champion (Image: Pirelli)

It’s looking ever more likely that Sebastian Vettel will be 2013 World Champion (Image: Pirelli)

The youngest triple World Champion in F1 history is set to become the youngest four-time World Champion at the end of this season. Sebastian Vettel just keeps on winning, and stretching his championship lead. With six races remaining in the season, Vettel is now 60 points ahead of main title rival Fernando Alonso and it’s becoming less and less likely that the Ferrari driver will be able to do anything about the German’s dominance this year.

To put Vettel’s lead into practical terms, let’s take a look at what his rivals must do in order to beat him this season:

Fernando Alonso

Alonso is second in the championship, 60 points behind Vettel. With six races remaining in the season, that means Alonso has to score an average of 10 points more than Vettel per race until the year is over. Plus one point, of course. That’s the equivalent of Alonso winning and Vettel finishing third at each remaining race (If Alonso does that, he only needs to equal Vettel’s points tally, as he will then have more wins, 8, than Vettel, currently on 7).

If Alonso finishes second at each remaining race, Vettel must finish sixth, and once Vettel must finish lower than sixth. If Alonso finishes third, Vettel must be eighth. If Alonso finishes fourth, Vettel must finish ninth, and have one result worse than ninth. If Alonso finishes fifth or lower at every race left in the 2013 season, Vettel will be World Champion, unless of course one of the other title contenders pulls off one of the miracles listed below.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton is third in the championship, 96 points behind Vettel. Hamilton must score an average of 16 points more than Vettel at each remaining round, plus 1 more point, in order to be World Champion. Let’s leave the gap to Alonso out of this calculation, as it will just get too complicated.

If Hamilton wins each remaining race and Vettel finishes sixth or lower, Hamilton will win the title. If Hamilton finishes second and Vettel ninth each time, plus one tenth or worse for Vettel, Hamilton will be World Champion. However, if Hamilton finishes an average of third or lower, he is out of the title race, regardless of what Vettel does in the remaining races.

Kimi Raikkonen

Raikkonen is in the same boat as Hamilton, being just two points behind the Mercedes driver. The only difference is Raikkonen needs Vettel to finish tenth or lower three times or worse rather than just once in the event that Raikkonen finishes second at each remaining race.

Mark Webber

Webber is fourth in the championship, 117 points behind Vettel. That means he has to score 19.5 more points per race than Vettel if he is to overhaul his team-mate in the title race. If Webber wins each remaining race, he has to hope that Vettel finishes an average of eighth or lower. If Vettel scores 8 more points than Webber at the next race in Korea, Webber will be mathematically out of the title race.

Nico Rosberg

Rosberg is the last driver in the points table who could still, in theory, beat Vettel to the 2013 title. Vettel is 131 points ahead of Rosberg with six races remaining. If Rosberg wins each race and Vettel finishes ninth or lower each time, Rosberg can be World Champion. However, if Rosberg does not finish at least 6 points ahead of Vettel at the next race in Korea, he will no longer be in contention (realistically or otherwise) for the 2013 title.

Realistically, only Alonso is in with a chance, and it’s a small chance at that. But a single retirement from Vettel could suddenly bring Alonso back into contention. A 60 point gap with 6 races remaining seems enormous. A 35 point gap (which is what it would be if Alonso were to win and Vettel score no points in Korea) with 5 races remaining seems slightly less daunting. Another retirement for Vettel with a win for Alonso would see it fall to 10 points.

At the earliest, Vettel could be crowned 2013 World Champion in Japan on 13 October. That’s if he wins the next two rounds (Korea and Japan) and Alonso scores 10 points or fewer in those two races combined. What happens to the other contenders in those two races is immaterial in that scenario.

So the title race is not over, not by any means, but the odds are stacked heavily in Vettel’s favour. It’s unlikely that he will take the title in Japan, but he could do so at the next race in India. That’s if Vettel wins the next three races, no matter where Alonso finishes.

Untouchable Vettel wins in Singapore

Sebastian Vettel took a dominant victory for Red Bull in Singapore (Image: Pirelli)

Sebastian Vettel took a dominant victory for Red Bull in Singapore (Image: Pirelli)

Sebastian Vettel has taken his third win in a row in 2013, and his third consecutive win in Singapore, with a display of dominance hardly seen since the era of Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Such was Vettel’s pace, he was over two seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field at points in the race where he needed to build up a gap. He led every lap of the race from pole position, and set the fastest lap on the way to victory. Fernando Alonso finished second for Ferrari, with Kimi Raikkonen third for Lotus.

Not even Fernando Alonso could challenge Vettel for victory today. Alonso was simply the best of the rest, taking second place as a result of a stunning start and bold tyre strategy. After qualifying seventh yesterday, Alonso rocketed off the line when the lights went out in Sunday’s race and emerged from the first three corners in third place. But he didn’t have the pace to challenge Vettel and Rosberg ahead, and was only able to finish in front of Rosberg due to the safety car.

On lap 25, Daniel Ricciardo made a mistake on the entry to turn 18 and ploughed into the barrier on the outside of the corner. As Ricciardo’s car was stuck on the track around a blind corner, there was no choice for race control but to deploy the safety car. As soon as that happened, a number of drivers streamed into the pits to change tyres, among them Alonso and Raikkonen. Both Red Bulls stayed out on track, as did both Mercedes drivers.

It soon became clear what the plan was for those drivers who pitted under the safety car: They intended to run to the end of the race without pitting again. Considering that the safety car period ended at the end of lap 30, that meant those drivers would have to do 31 racing laps on a single set of tyres to make it to the end of the 61 lap race. Pirelli confirmed to the BBC commentary team that it was possible, but the tyres would be right on the edge of grip by the end of the race.

And so it proved to be for many of the drivers who attempted the bold strategy. Jenson Button and Sergio Perez found themselves going backwards in the last few laps, from third and fifth with ten laps to go, to seventh and eighth by the chequered flag. Nonetheless, it was another good haul of points for McLaren, who are looking good for fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship this season.

Kimi Raikkonen finished 3rd from 13th on the grid, despite suffering from back pain (Image: Alastair Staley/Lotus F1 Team)

Kimi Raikkonen finished 3rd from 13th on the grid, despite suffering from back pain (Image: Alastair Staley/Lotus F1 Team)

Alonso and Raikkonen made the strategy work. Whether through superior driving or simply having cars that were gentler on their tyres, Alonso and Raikkonen managed to drive the entire second half of the race on a single set of medium tyres each. For Alonso, that meant being patient after the safety car until the two Mercedes drivers and Mark Webber made their second pit stops. For Raikkonen it meant he had to push hard and make some aggressive passing moves. Most notably, Raikkonen passed Jenson Button around the outside of turn 14 on his way to securing a podium place.

Raikkonen’s drive was more than a little impressive. He qualified 13th yesterday after back pain compromised his setup work in third practice. But in the race he used his bold tyre strategy and some skilled, aggressive driving to fight through the field, all the while preserving his tyres so that he could avoid a pitstop in the last 31 laps of the race. He said on the podium that his back had not been too bad during the race, but was starting to hurt once he got out of the car. Sore back or not, it was a storming drive by the popular Finn.

The driver who lost out most in the safety car period was Nico Rosberg. After a stunning start, Rosberg led for a few metres before running wide at turn 1 and losing position to pole-sitter and eventual winner Sebastian Vettel. Rosberg was then in a secure second place until the safety car came out. At that point, Mercedes had a decision to make: pit under the safety car and try to run to the end of the race, or stick with the plan and stop for a second time later on. They chose the latter option, based on their expectation that the Mercedes W04 would not be able to make its tyres last to the end of the race.

Rosberg pitted from second place on lap 41, and from then on found himself chasing after cars who were not intending to stop again. Somewhat bizarrely, Rosberg and his race engineer had a small argument on the team radio, when Rosberg was told to push to make sure he could capitalise on a possible last minute stop for Alonso. Rosberg was adamant that he needed to preserve his tyres, and disagreed with his engineer for a few corners to the general entertainment of television audiences who got to hear the conversation.

In the final laps of the race, Rosberg and Hamilton, who had pitted two laps after his team-mate, found themselves coming across cars who were running out of grip. The two Mercedes drivers were quite effective at fighting through the traffic and ended up fourth and fifth by the end of the race.

Mark Webber was the unfortunate victim of unreliability in his Red Bull. Like the Mercedes drivers, Webber spent his last stint on fresh tyres fighting through the field. It looked like he had the pace to reach the podium, but a few laps from the end he was told by his team to short-shift (i.e. change gear early, instead of waiting for the engine revs to reach their limit before up-shifting). The instruction was repeated with increasing urgency, suggesting that Webber had a gearbox problem. On the penultimate lap, it was clear that something was very wrong, and Webber confirmed over the team radio that he had lost power. Nonetheless, he attempted to complete the final lap, although by that stage he was so slow that drivers who had been quite far behind were passing him easily.

While he was cruising around on the final lap, Webber’s Red Bull caught fire, presumably as a result of a fuel or oil leak related to his lack of power. He pulled off and jumped out of the car while flames licked at the bodywork of the Red Bull. The retirement cost Webber fourth place and 12 championship points.

To add insult to injury, Webber was handed a reprimand for rejoining the track without the permission of the marshals after the race. Webber accepted a lift back to the pits on Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari, but apparently breached the regulations in the process. Alonso also received a reprimand, for stopping on the track against the instructions of the marshals, and causing two cars to take evasive action as a result. Webber’s reprimand is his third of the season, which means he will receive a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Korea.

Felipe Massa had a strong if sligthly frustrated drive to sixth place from sixth on the grid. Massa made a flying start, but found his way blocked in turns one to three and could not capitalise on his surge off the line. He spent almost the entire race trying to pass one car or another, but on the tight Marina Bay street circuit, passing was always going to be difficult. When the safety car came out, Massa pitted, just as Alonso did. But Ferrari chose to split their strategies, sending Alonso out on the medium tyres in the hope of making it to the end of the race without another stop, while Massa put on a set of supersoft tyres, intending to make another stop for supersoft tyres later in the race.

As it happened, Massa ended up stuck behind Paul Di Resta, who was also on supersoft tyres, in the period after the safety car. When it was time for Massa’s final pit stop, Di Resta also pitted, which meant Massa faced the prospect of staring at Di Resta’s gearbox until the end of the race. But Di Resta crashed out in turn 7 in the final few laps of the race, releasing Massa to chase after the cars ahead that were on older tyres. He made up a few places and finished sixth, where he had started.

Nico Hulkenberg picked up 2 points for 9th place (Image: Sauber)

Nico Hulkenberg picked up 2 points for 9th place (Image: Sauber)

Nico Hulkenberg had a frustrating race for Sauber. He made a very strong start and found himself battling with the two McLarens early on. At one point, Sergio Perez tried to pass him in turn 7, but Hulkenberg did not yield and held position around the outside. On the exit of the corner, Hulkenberg bottomed out on the kerb and ran off the track. He rejoined without losing position. The stewards ruled that he had gained an advantage by running off the track, which seemed very harsh considering that Perez had at no point been ahead of Hulkenberg and there seemed to be some minor contact between them as Hulkenberg ran wide.

But there was nothing Hulkenberg could do about the decision, and he had no choice but to yield to Perez. He spent the rest of the race behind the McLarens, eventually finishing in ninth place to collect another two points in a season that has been tough for the young German in an underperforming Sauber.

The final points position went to Force India’s Adrian Sutil. He had a fairly uneventful race but found himself at the back of the train of cars that included the McLarens at the end of the race. At that point, however, his tyres were starting to go off and he had no way of getting past Hulkenberg and had to settle for tenth place.

Full results from the Singapore Grand Prix:

Pos No Driver Team Laps Time/Retired Grid Pts
1 1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 61 1:59:13.132 1 25
2 3 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 61 +32.6 secs 7 18
3 7 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus 61 +43.9 secs 13 15
4 9 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 61 +51.1 secs 2 12
5 10 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 61 +53.1 secs 5 10
6 4 Felipe Massa Ferrari 61 +63.8 secs 6 8
7 5 Jenson Button McLaren 61 +83.3 secs 8 6
8 6 Sergio Perez McLaren 61 +83.8 secs 14 4
9 11 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 61 +84.2 secs 11 2
10 15 Adrian Sutil Force India 61 +84.6 secs 15 1
11 16 Pastor Maldonado Williams 61 +88.4 secs 18
12 12 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 61 +97.8 secs 10
13 17 Valtteri Bottas Williams 61 +105.161 secs 16
14 18 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 61 +113.512 secs 12
15 2 Mark Webber Red Bull 60 Engine 4
16 21 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 60 +1 Lap 20
17 23 Max Chilton Marussia 60 +1 Lap 22
18 22 Jules Bianchi Marussia 60 +1 Lap 21
19 20 Charles Pic Caterham 60 +1 Lap 19
20 14 Paul di Resta Force India 54 Accident 17
Ret 8 Romain Grosjean Lotus 37 Pneumatics 3
Ret 19 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 23 Accident 9

At long last – Alonso vs Massa

Felipe Massa could end up battling with Fernando Alonso during the Singapore Grand Prix (Ferrari)

Felipe Massa could end up battling with Fernando Alonso during the Singapore Grand Prix (Ferrari)

It’s the one battle we’ve hardly seen at all in the past few seasons – the battle of the Ferrari drivers. Alonso has generally been dominant enough early in each of his Ferrari seasons that Massa has ended up helping him attempt to win the title each time. But this season is different. Massa is no longer fighting for his place at Ferrari and therefore has no interest in helping Alonso.

For the Singapore Grand Prix, Massa is ahead of Alonso on the grid. Massa will start sixth, with Alonso just behind in seventh. And that makes it a straight fight for Ferrari supremacy around the streets of Singapore. If Massa makes a better start than Alonso, then Alonso will have to fight to get past. And vice versa, of course.

Massa will be very determined to beat Alonso in Singapore. He’s fighting for his place in Formula One and has everything to prove. His performance in tomorrow’s race could directly influence the team bosses on the pit wall as they consider whether or not to employ him in 2014. So we can expect to see the quick and aggressive Massa who almost won the title back in 2008.

For Alonso’s part, he absolutely has to beat Sebastian Vettel in order to keep his title hopes alive. Based on the relative pace of the Red Bull and Ferrari so far this weekend, that’s not going to happen. But Alonso is not known for giving up. He will fight tooth and nail to move his way through the field. It’s just how he races.

So each has incentive to beat the other, which could mean we are in for an epic battle between two of the most experienced men currently in Formula One. All we can hope for is a clean start so that they end up close to each other during the race.

Massa no longer has incentive to help Alonso

Felipe Massa lets Fernando Alonso through during the 2013 Italian Grand Prix (Image: Ferrari)

Felipe Massa lets Fernando Alonso through during the 2013 Italian Grand Prix (Image: Ferrari)

In the latter part of the past three seasons, we’ve seen Felipe Massa dutifully helping Fernando Alonso in his quest to win the World Championship. Massa has given up positions to Alonso, been the victim of grid penalties deliberately incurred by Ferrari to push Alonso forward on the grid, and generally been the epitome of the supportive team-mate and loyal Ferrari driver. But now he’s leaving, and that could all change.

The reason Massa has helped Alonso over the past few years is straight-forward: it’s been good for Ferrari, which has been good for Massa. Put simply, Massa’s loyalty has helped him to stay at Ferrari, which has been a very good thing for him as Ferrari have been producing competitive cars during the period he’s been assisting Alonso. But now, Massa does not need to impress the powers that be at Ferrari. He’s not fighting for his Ferrari drive anymore. Now he’s trying to find a competitive drive for 2014. And that means he has to impress all the other team bosses in Formula One. Playing second fiddle to Alonso will no longer help his cause.

A Formula One team boss will hire a driver he believes will deliver results for the team. In evaluating a potential driver who is driving for another team, a team boss will look at how the driver compares to his team-mate. It’s the only reliable measure of the extent to which a driver can get the most out of his car and himself. In the case of Massa, a potential employer must look at his record against Alonso and conclude that Massa is not delivering.

So Massa has to show himself off. He has seven races left as a Ferrari driver in which to use a very competitive car to deliver results. If he succeeds in doing that, he is quite likely to get a competitive drive for 2014. Lotus are hiring, and they’ve mentioned Massa as an option. Their other prominent option is Nico Hulkenberg, who is performing miracles compared to his Sauber team-mate, Esteban Gutierrez. Massa has to prove that he is the better option for Lotus in order to secure the drive.

So it is fairly likely that Massa will display new levels of motivation on the track, as he makes a bid to extend his Formula One career. That is at odds with Ferrari’s need to give Alonso all the help he can get in his bid to win the title, and that presents Massa with a choice: does he help his Ferrari team, to whom he has been so loyal for so long? Or does he act in his own self-interest and give his all to beat Alonso on the track in a bid to secure the most competitive drive possible for 2014? Time will tell.

In all likelihood, Massa’s conundrum will not be present for very long. Sebastian Vettel is so far ahead in the Drivers’ Championship that Alonso is likely to be out of the running in fairly short order. In the event that Alonso can no longer win the title, there could then be an interesting reversal of roles at Ferrari. Would Fernando Alonso, one of the toughest and most competitive drivers in the world, help Massa to achieve results on the track so that he can secure a drive with a competitive team?

Alonso said in January this year that he would be willing to help Massa to win the title, if it came to that. Massa cannot win the 2013 title, but it’s possible that he could drive for Lotus next season, if Lotus consider him sufficiently competitive. Alonso arguably owes Massa for all the assistance he has received in the last few years. Perhaps he will pay back some of that debt in the latter part of this season.

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