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Alonso’s unfortunate career moves

Fernando Alonso drives for McLaren in practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix (Image: McLaren)

Fernando Alonso drives for McLaren in practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix (Image: McLaren)

Fernando Alonso is one of the top drivers in Formula 1 at present, perhaps ever. And yet he has not won the Drivers’ Championship since 2006. Why not? I think it’s largely the result of repeatedly being in the wrong team at the wrong time.

Consider Alonso’s career moves since starting in Formula 1. His career began in 2001 with Minardi, where he impressed enough in his first season to land a drive with Renault in 2003. Just a few years later, Alonso won back-to-back championships with Renault in 2005-2006. So far, so good.

For 2007, Alonso switched to McLaren. The car was competitive. Alonso was in form. There was just the quite significant problem of a rapidly deteriorating relationship between team and driver. Alonso never felt at home at McLaren-Mercedes, as it was then, and at the end of the season he and the team agreed to part ways. Alonso went back to Renault for 2008.

Unfortunately for Alonso, the 2008 Renault was nowhere near as good as that year’s McLaren. Alonso finished a distant fifth in the championship while Lewis Hamilton, in a car Alonso could have been driving, won the championship. Had Alonso stuck it out with McLaren, it is quite possible that the 2008 championship would have been his.

Another season with Renault followed, in which it became apparent that the car was simply not good enough. Alonso failed to win a single race in 2009, and at the end of the season made a high-profile switch to Ferrari.

From 2010 to 2013, Alonso gave his all for Ferrari, comfortably out-performing team-mate Felipe Massa and generally competing, to at least some degree, for the championship. But all four of those seasons were won by Sebastian Vettel for Red Bull.

And here is perhaps the most unfortunate of Alonso’s career decisions so far. When he left McLaren to return to Renault for 2008, there was another team rumoured to be interested in his services. That team was Red Bull.

Had he made the move to Red Bull, Alonso could quite conceivably have dominated Formula in the same manner that Vettel did. But it didn’t happen. Instead, Alonso went to Renault and struggled in an under-performing car.

Alonso’s final season for Ferrari, 2014, was another year of struggle with an inferior car. The Ferrari power unit was no match for that of Mercedes, and Alonso once again was not able to challenge for the championship.

In his most recent career move, Alonso made the switch from Ferrari to McLaren for 2015. The much anticipated reunion of McLaren and legendary engine supplier Honda was expected to provide Alonso with a way back to the top of the results sheets.

But again, it seems to not have worked out, although it’s still very early in the season. Alonso missed the first race in Australia due to a concussion from a heavy crash in testing, but in his absence, McLaren drivers Jenson Button and reserve Kevin Magnussen were well off the pace, as Honda struggled to provide the power required for the car to be competitive.

The McLarens occupied the back row of the grid in Australia, and look likely to be quite far down the order again for this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix. It promises to be a tough season for Alonso, unless Honda can get their act together quite quickly.

And here again, Alonso seems to have made the wrong move. Or at least he appears to have moved at the wrong time. A resurgent Ferrari are currently best-of-the-rest to Mercedes, ahead of Williams to the surprise of the entire F1 field. Sebastian Vettel, who moved from Red Bull to take Alonso’s place at Ferrari at the end of last year, is revelling in the pace of the car and scored his first podium for the team at his first attempt.

Will McLaren come good for Alonso? For the sake of Formula 1, one can only hope. It is a real pity that one of the true greats of the sport has had such poor luck with cars. Unfortunately, 2015 doesn’t look like being the year his fortunes will change.

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Vettel retires from Formula 1

Sebastian Vettel has decided he's won enough in F1 and it's time to retire (Image: Pirelli)

Sebastian Vettel has decided he’s won enough in F1 and it’s time to retire (Image: Pirelli)

Sebastian Vettel shocked the racing world this morning by announcing his retirement from Formula 1 with immediate effect. Vettel is looking forward to spending more time with his model train collection, a pleasure that his hectic Formula 1 schedule had made all but impossible for the past few years.

Speaking from his Thurgovia, Switzerland home today, Vettel expressed relief that he had finally come to this difficult decision, saying, “It’s such a weight off my shoulders. This whole domination thing… it’s not really me. I prefer to just have fun in my sport. Winning’s really not my main priority.

“It’s been hard for me in Formula 1. Although I come across as a ruthless perfectionist who will do anything to win a race, I’m really a softy at heart. I felt bad for all the other guys every time I beat them in the last four years. They wanted those championships so badly, but I was really just here for the free energy drinks.”

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was not surprised by Vettel’s decision. He praised the young German’s courage in taking such a selfless step, saying, “Seb’s just such a nice guy. He feels it’s time for Fernando [Alonso] to get that third title he’s wanted for so long, and he knows the only way that’s going to happen is if he [Vettel] isn’t there anymore.

“As for all of us at Red Bull, we fully support Seb’s retirement. Our projections for the 2014 season had us just beating Mercedes and Ferrari at the last race, but with Seb gone, it looks like we’re out of the fight now. It’s only fair, really. We’ve had enough success.”

Horner also suggested that Vettel may have patched up his relationship with Mark Webber, Vettel’s former team-mate at Red Bull. Webber confirmed the good news, describing the plans he and Vettel have for the future:

“Seb’s such a great guy. We had our problems in the past, but it was all because I didn’t understand Seb’s motivation. He didn’t want to beat me so comprehensively. All he really wanted was to make sure he earned as many free Red Bull drinks as possible. I didn’t know he got a crate for every lap he led for Red Bull. If I’d had that in my contract, I’d have driven a whole lot faster.

“Now that he’s decided to hang up his helmet, we’re going to spend some time together with our model trains. Between us, we’ve got a big enough collection to cover the Monte Carlo street circuit. We’re hoping to put it on show for this year’s Monaco Grand Prix, assuming Bernie [Ecclestone] will allow it.”

Ecclestone was not available for comment. He was too busy listening to the sound of V8 engines with a vacant grin on his face to answer questions about Formula 1.

US Grand Prix – Preview

View of the climb up to turn 1 at the Circuit of the Americas (Image: Mercedes)

View of the climb up to turn 1 at the Circuit of the Americas (Image: Mercedes)

11 Formula One teams head to Austin, Texas, this weekend for the United States Grand Prix. It’s the second running of the event at the Circuit of the Americas, which was purpose-built for Formula One.

The track is one of just five anti-clockwise circuits on the F1 calendar, the others being Singapore, Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. The Circuit of the Americas consists of 20 corners, including some that are reminiscent of well known curves on other tracks – notably part of the first sector strong resembles the Maggots-Becketts-Chapel complex at Silverstone, and turns 16 to 18 are a mirror of the long, flat-out triple-apex turn 8 at Istanbul Park in Turkey.

Of the drivers racing this weekend, only Lewis Hamilton has ever won the United States Grand Prix. He won the last event held at Indianapolis in his rookie season of 2007 and won again last year when F1 returned to the US at the Circuit of the Americas. If Hamilton is to maintain his perfect record in the US (he has only raced there twice, and won both times), he will have to beat Sebastian Vettel, who is certainly the form man in Formula One after winning his fourth World Championship just a few weeks ago.

Kimi Raikkonen

This weekend, for the first time since he returned to Formula One in 2012, Kimi Raikkonen will be absent from a Grand Prix. The Finn has elected to miss the final two races of 2013 in order to have surgery to alleviate pain in his back that has apparently troubled him since a heavy testing crash back in 2001.

Lotus have yet to announce the identity of Raikkonen’s replacement for these final two races. Nico Hulkenberg’s manager confirmed this week that Lotus had asked Hulkenberg to race for them, but Hulkenberg turned down the request as he is still committed to Sauber for the rest of the season.

Although Lotus have a full-time reserve in Davide Valsecchi, it looks increasingly unlikely that he will be asked to step in for Raikkonen. The strongest rumours at present are that Heikki Kovalainen will drive for Lotus in the USA and Brazil. The popular and highly-rated Finn has not raced in F1 this season, but has taken part in some Friday practice sessions for Caterham. Kovalainen previously raced for Lotus (when they were called Renault) in 2007, before moving on to McLaren, where he spent two seasons and scored his only F1 victory to date.

Tyres

Pirelli are bringing their two hardest compounds – the hard and medium tyres – to this weekend’s race. Pirelli’s motorsport boss Paul Hembery explains the choice of tyres and what we can expect in terms of pit stops on Sunday:

“The hard and medium tyres are the best choice for the United States Grand Prix, because it’s a circuit that places several high-energy demands on the tyres, so you need the most durable compounds in the range. There are some fast corners and many rapid elevation changes as well: in that respect it’s a bit like Spa. When you have more energy going through the tyre, you have a bigger heat build-up – which is what increases wear and degradation.

“Now that we’re coming to the USA for the second time we have a better idea of what to expect, whereas last year – when we also nominated the hard and the medium – it was much more of a step into the unknown. This year’s compounds are softer, so we would expect around two pit stops in the race, depending also on the rate of track evolution. Even though it’s November we’re still likely to have warm weather, which obviously affects thermal degradation too.”

Stats

Circuit Length: 5.513 km
Corners: 20
Race laps: 56
Race length: 308.405 km
Lap Record: 1:39.347 – Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull Racing (2012)

2012 results:

Race winner: Lewis Hamilton / McLaren
Pole position: Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull Racing – 1:35.657
Fastest lap: Sebastian Vettel / Red Bull Racing – 1:39.347

Weather forecast for the United States Grand Prix from Accuweather.com

Weather forecast for the United States Grand Prix from Accuweather.com

Weather

Accuweather.com is predicting a chance of rain on Saturday, which could result in a mixed-up qualifying session if the weather does intervene. Formula1.com, the official Formula 1 website, is showing a forecast of thunderstorms for Saturday. Friday and Sunday are expected to be dry.

The weekend should generally be warm, which will be good for racing and for race fans who will hopefully turn out in great numbers as they did last year.

Race Prediction

If anyone other than Sebastian Vettel wins on Sunday, it will be an unlikely result. Vettel has won the last seven races in a row in commanding fashion, showing that he is in arguably the form of his career. At this point of the season, the Red Bull RB9 is easily the fastest car in the field, which makes it certain that Vettel and team-mate Mark Webber will be competitive this weekend. Vettel is the firm favourite to win in Texas on Sunday.

Qualifying could provide an interesting battle of the team-mates. In recent races, Mark Webber has found a bit of extra pace and has had two pole positions, including last time out in Abu Dhabi where he produced a stunning lap in qualfiying to relegate Vettel to second on the grid. With just two races left in his F1 career, Webber will be keen to end on a high note, and starting from pole position this weekend would certainly help his cause in that regard.

 

Vettel’s nonsensical reprimand in India

Vettel celebrates winning his fourth title in India (Pirelli)

Vettel celebrates winning his fourth title in India (Pirelli)

Sebastian Vettel secured his fourth consecutive World Drivers’ Championship last weekend in India, winning the race in commanding fashion and underlining just how dominant he is at this stage of his career. After the race, he celebrated by doing doughnuts on the start-finish straight. His celebrations earned him a reprimand from the stewards, who also fined his Red Bull team for the incident.

The rules of Formula One are clear – each driver must proceed directly to parc fermé after the race in order for the cars to be scrutineered in the condition that they were in when they finished the race. The purpose of that rule is simple – these cars run on the limits of weight restrictions and various other regulations and the rules are designed to stop the teams from, among other things, finding ways to add weight to the cars post-race.

And here’s why Vettel’s reprimand is ridiculous: his doughnuts after the race could not possibly have helped him in scrutineering. Spinning up the rear tyres as required for doughnuts heats them up and wears them down, which reduces the overall weight of the car. Additionally, revving the engine as required to do doughnuts burns fuel, which again reduces the weight of the car.

In Formula One, each car is required to provide a fuel sample after the race, and consequently each car must have a certain amount of fuel remaining when it reaches scrutineering. Vettel’s doughnuts, which would have reduced the amount of fuel he had in the car, could only have taken him closer to risking not having enough fuel for the required sample.

In short, by celebrating his fourth World Championship in the manner he chose, Vettel could not possibly have gained any advantage in post-race scrutineering. The problem then is not what Vettel did, but the rules themselves. They are intended to prevent post-race cheating, but they ended up punishing an action that was clearly not going to give Vettel or Red Bull any advantage.

Apart from the technical side of the rules and the offence, the reprimand showed the disregard that Formula One rule-makers have for the fans of the sport. Vettel’s post-race celebrations were very well received by an enthusiastic crowd in India. Formula One has been trying to build up a following in India, and what Vettel did can only have helped that cause. He engaged with the fans by sharing his moment of glory with them before he shared it with anyone else.

The FIA should be recognising the positive work Vettel has done in bringing F1 closer to the fans in India, rather than punishing him for breaking a rule in a manner that could not have given him an advantage anyway.

Vettel’s not close to Schumacher’s records

Michael Schumacher congratulates Sebastian Vettel on his third title in 2012 © Daimler

Michael Schumacher congratulates Sebastian Vettel on his third title in 2012 © Daimler

Sebastian Vettel has been so dominant over the last four seasons it’s been suggested that it’s only a matter of time before he overhauls Michael Schumacher’s major records in the sport. But that’s not particularly realistic. Let’s take a look at how things stand right now:

Schumacher Vettel Difference
Championships 7 3 4
Wins 91 33 58
Podiums 155 56 99
Pole Positions 68 41 27
Fastest Laps 77 19 58

Now let’s look at each of these categories separately:

Championships

Vettel is four World Championships behind Michael Schumacher in the record list. That’s the equivalent of the entire career of Alain Prost, who is certainly among the all-time greats. Even assuming Vettel wins the 2013 Drivers’ Championship (which looks pretty much inevitable at this stage of the season), Vettel will still have to win another three titles just to match Schumacher, nevermind exceed his achievements.

Consider the drivers who have finished their F1 careers with three titles: Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. That’s a formidable list. Vettel has already matched the championship tally of each of these drivers, and won more races than all but Senna, but the task of Vettel doing it all again is a rather tall order indeed.

It’s not fair to Vettel to expect him to overhaul Schumacher’s championship tally. He’s looking set to equal Prost on four. Perhaps he’ll be in a position to win another one and equal Fangio. It’s much too early to start talking about Schumacher’s seven titles.

Wins

Vettel is currently fourth on the list of all-time winners with 33 victories. Schumacher won 91 races, 58 more than Vettel has so far in his F1 career. 58 wins is more than second-placed man Alain Prost won in his career (Prost won 51). So far, Vettel has won 28.95% of the races he has entered. At that rate, he would have to compete for another 200 races to match Schumacher’s victory tally. 200 races is close to double Vettel’s career so far. It’s so far away from being realistic that it’s not worth discussing further for at least another 5 years.

Podiums

Schumacher stood on the podium 155 times. Vettel has so far appeared on the podium 56 times. That’s a difference of 99 podiums, more than Fernando Alonso has achieved in his career, and Alonso is third in that particular all-time list.

Vettel is very far away from matching Schumacher’s podium finishes. Again, let’s come back to this one in a few years.

Pole Positions

At last, here’s a record that Vettel seems likely to challenge in his career. Schumacher’s tally of 68 pole positions is only 27 successful qualifying sessions away for Vettel. If Red Bull continue to produce cars as stunningly fast as those Vettel has raced for the past four seasons, Vettel could (in theory) beat Schumacher’s pole position tally by the end of 2014. He’d have to take pole at every race between now and then, which is not likely. But it does seem inevitable that Vettel will break this particular Schumacher record at some point.

In only his seventh season of Formula One, Vettel has already put himself third in the all-time list of polesitters. He has only Senna (on 65) and Schumacher ahead. It’s a fairly safe bet that the pole position record will have Vettel’s name on it within the next five years, and perhaps a bit sooner than that.

Fastest Laps

Surprisingly, Vettel is not even in the top ten when it comes to setting fastest race laps. He’s recorded just 19, compared to Schumacher’s mammoth total of 77. In fairness to Vettel, his career has taken place almost entirely in the post-refueling era, which makes it much less obvious that the fastest lap should go to the driver of the fastest car. Schumacher was famous for delivering qualifying-style laps just before he pitted for fuel in his Ferrari career, which explains his rather huge fastest lap record (second on the list is Prost on “only” 41). But those days are done, for now at least. If refueling reappears during Vettel’s career, then he might begin to approach this record.

As things stand, Vettel would have to have a very long career indeed to catch up the 58 fastest laps by which he currently trails Schumacher.

Vettel is a great driver. Even at the rather youthful age of 26, he’s worthy of consideration for inclusion in any list of the top 5 drivers of all time. He looks set to feature at the front in Formula One for as long as he is inclined to be a part of the sport.  But it’s far too early in his career to be talking about Schumacher’s records, with the possible exception of the pole position record.

Booing of Vettel has to stop

Sebastian Vettel stands on the Singapore podium, just before the jeers starts (Image: Ferrari)

Sebastian Vettel was jeered on the Singapore podium by the crowd (Image: Ferrari)

After winning the Singapore Grand Prix with a magnificent display of his brilliance, Sebastian Vettel took to the podium to accept his winner’s trophy. And then the crowd booed him. Again.

Booing Vettel has become something of a trend in 2013. It started in Malaysia, where Vettel ignored team orders and passed Mark Webber to win the race against the instructions of his team. The crowd did not appreciate what they saw as a lack of fair play by Vettel, and booed him on the podium. While booing is never a positive thing, at least in Malaysia there was a catalyst.

But it didn’t stop in Malaysia. When he won in Canada, Vettel was booed on the podium. Boos also greeted the victorious Vettel in Belgium, although those could have been related to a Greenpeace demonstration that was timed to coincide with the podium ceremony.

When Vettel won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, he was jeered so loudly that it became difficult for the podium interviews to continue. It’s understandable that the Italian fans would be disappointed to see their hero, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, beaten by Vettel in a Red Bull, but it was also unlike the tifosi to boo the winner on the Monza podium. They love motor racing, and normally applaud the winner, even if it’s not a Ferrari driver.

Most recently, at yesterday’s Singapore Grand Prix, Vettel was booed again on the podium. And for the first time, the podium interviewer reacted to the jeering. Martin Brundle was clearly unimpressed at the reception Vettel was receiving and said to the crowd, “Please don’t do that. That’s not correct.”

Exactly why Vettel is being booed is not entirely clear. It could still be partly due to the manner of his Malaysian Grand Prix victory, which was perceived as underhanded. But that was a while ago. It could be, as Vettel himself as suggested, that there is a travelling band of Ferrari fans who continue to instigate the jeering. Perhaps the crowds are tired of Vettel’s dominance. After all, he is looking set to take his fourth consecutive World Championship and is so far ahead that Formula One has become predictable and (dare I say it?) a little bit boring. It could be that it’s just caught on and the crowds now boo Vettel for their own entertainment.

Whatever the reason, the crowd in Singapore missed a trick yesterday. They failed to appreciate that they had just witnessed arguably one of the greatest victories in the history of the sport. Vettel completed the rather unusual Grand Slam – he took pole position, won the race, set the fastest lap and led every lap (some might argue that the Grand Slam does not apply as Vettel lost the lead to Nico Rosberg for a few metres on the opening lap, but that’s just getting too technical).

When Vettel needed to push, he pushed. And when he did, it was mesmerizing. At a few different points in the race, he was over two seconds per lap faster than anyone else. His fastest lap of the race was over a second quicker than anyone else managed. When the safety car came out, it really did not suit Vettel’s tyre strategy. So what did he do? He put his foot down and pulled out a large enough gap to allow him to pit and rejoin the track still in the lead. He pulled out a 30 second lead in just 14 laps to make that happen.

And then, when his final stop was done, Vettel felt the need to push again. So he finished the race 32.6 seconds clear of Fernando Alonso, a gap that he created in just 17 laps.

Vettel is almost certainly going to win his fourth consecutive World Championship this season. And he deserves it. He’s shown over and over again this year that he’s the best driver in the field and certainly one of the greatest in the history of the sport. He’s in unbelievable form, and is extracting maximum performance from the admittedly superb car his team has produced.

What Vettel deserved after yesterday’s Singapore Grand Prix was a resounding standing ovation. What he got instead was a chorus of jeers. And that’s just not right.

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.

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