Max Chilton recorded his first ever Formula 1 retirement in Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix. It’s probably the most important event that has occurred in his short F1 career thus far.
Chilton has had a monkey on his back for some time now. That monkey has been his reliability. He finished every race of his debut season in 2013 and followed that up by finishing the first six races of 2014 – a run of 25 consecutive race finishes, which is impressive for any driver in Formula 1.
The problem was it became his claim to fame. Chilton was the driver who finished every race. It’s certainly not a problem to finish races. Finishing is essential to results. But finishing is not a result in itself. Winning is a result. Finishing on the podium is a result. Finishing in the points is a result. Finishing ahead of your rivals is a result. Finishing ahead of your team-mate is a result.
While Chilton was notching up his impressive run of race finishes, his team-mate, the ever-impressive Jules Bianchi, was notching up results that displayed his immense promise as a Formula 1 driver. He comprehensively outperformed Chilton in 2013 (the debut season of both drivers) and most recently scored the Marussia team’s first ever points by finishing 9th at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Where do Chilton’s 25 consecutive race finishes rank next to Bianchi’s 2 point in Monaco? Nowhere. Nobody cares that Chilton has been reliable to an unlikely degree. It’s results that count, not race finishes.
And that is why it’s crucial that Chilton had to retire from a race. After 25 consecutive finishes, it’s likely that he felt some pressure to make it to the finish line simply so he could avoid failing to finish. But that’s not the point of racing. Results are the point of racing.
Chilton can now focus on results. He starts with a clean slate at the next round in Austria. It’s a neutral venue, in that it’s not his home race, nor is it the home race of his team or any major partner of his team. There’s no specific pressure. It’s just another race where he gets to go out there and do the best he can with the car his team prepares for him.
Perhaps we’ll see Chilton really start to challenge Bianchi in the near future. Until now, he’s hardly done so. But the freedom that comes with getting that monkey off his back can only do him a great deal of good.
With just over an hour to go to qualifying at the Hungaroring, there is no clear favourite for pole position. That’s quite unusual for 2013, a season in which all of the 9 pole positions so far have been taken by Sebastian Vettel, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton (evenly shared with 3 each).
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber set the pace on Friday for Red Bull, but did not feature at the front in FP3 this morning. That in itself is not an indication of a lack of pace – they could simply have been running more fuel than their rivals – but it does raise the question: have they sacrificed qualifying pace in favour of race pace, perhaps assuming qualifying supremacy beyond what is realistic?
In FP3, Romain Grosjean topped the times with the fastest lap of the weekend so far, 1:20.730, half a second quicker than Vettel went yesterday. Grosjean is looking perhaps a little bit quicker than team-mate Kimi Raikkonen this weekend, at least on short runs. Raikkonen’s strength this season has been his race pace, which is quite difficult to gauge in practice. Lotus are, nonetheless, in the hunt for pole position. Grosjean has never had a pole position in F1, and Raikkonen has yet to top qualifying since he returned to the sport at the start of 2012. Can they break those two ducks today?
Ferrari are also looking quick. Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have both been within a few tenths of the front-runners throughout the weekend. Massa did not appear to get the maximum out of his Ferrari in FP3, but Alonso was on top of his car as ever. He set the second fastest time in FP3, just 0.168 seconds behind Grosjean, and will be looking to carry that speed into this afternoon’s qualifying session.
The big question mark for qualifying is over Mercedes. Both drivers struggled in Friday practice, but Lewis Hamilton seemed to have rediscovered his confidence this morning after some overnight setup changes. He set the quickest time in FP3 on medium tyres, but could not hold onto the top spot when the soft tyres went on. Could Mercedes have been hiding more pace in Hamilton’s car? He went just 8 tenths quicker on the soft tyres, while those around him improved by over a second in many cases. It could be that Mercedes know they have found some speed in Hamilton’s car, but they are choosing to hide it until it counts in this afternoon’s qualifying session.
A pole-sitter from any team other than Red Bull, Lotus, Ferrari and Mercedes would be a massive surprise. The top four teams are sufficiently far ahead of the rest to be quite sure of front-row dominance. But it is close at the front. Any one of the 8 drivers from the top four teams could be on pole in Hungary.
This afternoon, Tom Dillmann took his first GP2 pole position in Hungary with a lap time of 1:28.219. That’s about seven tenths of a second quicker than last year’s GP2 pole time, although the comparison is not particularly significant.
What is significant is how close Dillmann’s pole position lap time came to the back of the Formula One field in their second Free Practice session. Max Chilton rounded out the field in FP2 with a time of 1:26.647, just under 1.6 seconds quicker than Dillmann’s GP2 time. That’s really not very much at all considering that F1 and GP2 are different series that are not supposed to be comparable in terms of performance.
Furthermore, Dillmann’s time would have put him not too far off a theoretical 107% qualifying time in Formula 1, assuming the calculation is made from Vettel’s leading FP2 time. Just to clarify, the 107% rule requires an F1 driver to set a time within 107% of the fastest time set in Q1 in order to be allowed to start the Grand Prix. Based on Vettel’s FP2 time of 1:21.264, the theoretical 107% time would be 1:26.952, just 1.3 seconds faster than Dillmann’s time.
The small gap between Dillmann and Max Chilton is startling. F1 cars are vastly more powerful and have greatly superior braking and aerodynamics to GP2 cars. For a GP2 car to be so close in lap time to an F1 car, as impressive as the GP2 driver’s performance may be, is more an indication of a lack of performance in the F1 car. In this case, it shows that Chilton’s Marussia team is struggling heavily for pace around the Hungaroring. But more than that, it highlights just how far Marussia have to go before they can hope to be properly competitive in Formula One.
Incidentally, pole position for last year’s GP2 race was taken by the very same Max Chilton.