The safety dance

You can still hear the wails of anguish from Maranello this morning, but what’s done is done. The Safety Car intervention almost certainly prevented Fernando Alonso from finishing on the podium of the European Grand Prix. Alonso certainly felt that way, and having spent the balance of the race seething in his cockpit he rather petulantly suggested that the result had been deliberately “manipulated”.

Absolute bunkum, of course. Such a thing would require planning – and, above all, a motive. All we have is opportunity and effect; in any case, when two cars come together as violently as Mark Webber’s and Heikki Kovalainen’s did, the FIA’s race director has rather more important tasks to perform before he can get around to plotting Ferrari’s demise (I may be wrong, and it may be a great big conspiracy after all – sadly, my tinfoil hat is away being cleaned).

So, rather than entertaining these absurd notions or second-guessing the competence of the race director, Charlie Whiting, perhaps we should consider the role of the Safety Car itself. What should its philosophy be?

What I mean is this: should the deployment of the Safety Car be allowed to influence the outcome of the race, over and above the inevitable effect of closing up the field?

In this regard you can divide motor racing into two distinct camps. In sportscars, where multiple classes are racing at once, competitors have grown accustomed to the inadvertent distortions a Safety Car deployment can create. It comes out, it does its job, and if your car is on the wrong piece of road at the wrong time and gets caught out, tough luck. The best sportscar teams have evolved strategies to turn Safety Car deployments to their advantage – or at least to minimise the disadvantage.

On the other side of the fence – predominantly in US racing – the full-course yellow has become part of the entertainment portfolio. How often have you watched a NASCAR race and witnessed the peculiar phenomenon of a minor incident late in the race being used as an excuse to “throw a yellow” and artificially close up the field, thereby guaranteeing an exciting finish?

The most difficult and controversial aspect of any Safety Car deployment is the business of picking up the leader during the initial scramble. True to form, in Sunday’s race the leader – Sebastian Vettel – was already several seconds up the road when the Safety Car emerged. Second-placed Lewis Hamilton was passing the pit exit at the time and vacillated over whether to pass the Safety Car; by the time he’d done so the SC had crossed the white line, rendering the move illegal. Alonso and Felipe Massa were then stuck behind the Safety Car while Vettel and Hamilton were free to press on to the pitlane (‘free’ in the sense that they still had to observe a mandatory lap time, which several other competitors didn’t).

In order for the Safety Car to have as little impact as possible on the outcome of the race, one of two things then had to happen: either the race director would have had to contact McLaren and Red Bull and order them to have Hamilton and Vettel slow down and allow themselves to be passed by the Safety Car; or the car would have had to wait at the pit exit for another lap and then pick up Vettel. The former option was do-able, at a push (but if this were to become an official policy, what would happen if one of the drivers in question was out of radio contact?). The latter option just doesn’t bear thinking about.

When a serious accident occurs, racing must stop immediately. The deployment of the Safety Car cannot be put ‘on hold’ for fear that someone may lose out. Tough luck. Don’t blame the FIA, blame the dingbat who put their car in the wall. Or, better still, don’t blame anyone at all. Just get over it.

That said, I’d love to know why 12 laps elapsed before Lewis Hamilton was investigated for passing the Safety Car…

More Valentino Rossi twaddle

Rumours are circulating the interweb again that Valentino Rossi has his eyes on a seat at Ferrari. It comes from a fragment of an interview in Gazzetta dello Sport which, as usual, has been beaten into shape and blown up out of all proportion by z-grade ‘news’ providers:

For Ferrari make a team as strong as the Yamaha team, it should hire Sebastian Vettel alongside Alonso… And, if [Luca di Montezemolo] is currently looking for the opportunity third car, he should give it to me.

The whiff of Google Translate hangs heavily over this piece of guff. Since the business of teams being able to run third cars is utterly dead in the water – and has been for yonks – the whole premise of this rumour is utter balls.

It’s utter balls on another front, too: Rossi is currently struggling with a career-threatening shoulder injury he sustained when he fell off his motocross bike. He’s finding it hard enough to perform in MotoGP, let alone consider a swap to Formula 1. Do none of these idiots check their facts before clicking “Publish” and charging their gullible clients a few cents?

Silly question, I suppose…

Rancour at McLaren too?

Lewis Hamilton: miscommunication?

Martin Whitmarsh and Lewis Hamilton: miscommunication?

The problem with modern racing drivers is that racing is all they’ve ever known: all that time spent honing their natural, instinctive feel for how to make a car go as quickly as possible, from an early age, leaves them undeveloped in other crucial areas. Chief amongst these is their capacity to form effective relationships with other people.

Of course, even if you’re paranoid it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t out to get you – but for an F1 driver, trapped in their own self-centred bubble from the moment they first grasped a steering wheel, paranoia can be extraordinarily corrosive. The merest whiff of partiality is all it takes; and then, like any message board conspiracy theorist or tinfoil hat merchant, once they have reached their conclusion they shape and interpret all incoming data to suit it, and discard anything to the contrary. It’s all downhill from there.

This mentality is what precipitated Fernando Alonso’s meltdown at McLaren in 2007. Odd, isn’t it, that someone with the inner steel to go wheel-to-wheel with their rivals at 200mph and beyond could so easily be provoked into a destructive sequence of hissy fits? And yet that’s what happened: by the end it didn’t matter whether McLaren really were favouring Lewis over Fernando or not; it was enough that he believed they were (and let’s not forget that Lewis had a tantrum of his own that year, in Monaco, because he felt the team had favoured Fernando over him – sometimes being a team principal must be like herding cats).

As documented in my previous post, a whiff of not-invented-in-Salzburg syndrome is in the air at Red Bull after the Turkish Grand Prix. But what of McLaren? Never have I seen Lewis Hamilton look so unmoved after a race win.

Having inherited the lead after the Red Bulls eliminated one another at Turn 12, Hamilton was challenged by his team-mate at exactly the same spot nine laps later. It was a brief battle, which Hamilton resolved in his favour by edging Button wide into Turn 1 at the beginning of the following lap. And then, as if in receipt of an urgent injunction from the team to play nicely, they held station for the rest of the race.

There were the beginnings of a muttered conversation between Hamilton and Jenson Button in the drivers’ pre-podium ‘green room’, but they broke it off when they realised they were within earshot of a live microphone and camera. McLaren’s race feed on their excellent new website contains no radio conversation pertaining to the events of lap 49.

Questioned later, Hamilton explained that he had been instructed to save fuel and given a target lap time, which he thought was too slow, and which enabled Button to catch him up. He also alluded to a “miscommunication” with the team (given his recent penchant for slagging them off on the air, they can be forgiven for leaning on the mute button for that one). Fleet Street drilled down into this during the official presser. He responded:

For me it was just… the communication wasn’t clear for me. When they suggested ‘save this much fuel’ it was not easy to save that much fuel unless I went particularly slowly. I tried to reach that target and in doing so, Jenson was all of a sudden… he just appeared from nowhere and he was up my tail and then there was nothing I could do.

Button, for his part, said:

For about four or five laps beforehand they were saying you have to save fuel. They didn’t put a lap time on it. They just said you have got to save a bit of fuel. That was quite early in the race I was told to do that, probably about lap 30.

It’s possible that Button, having stayed in touch with the leading trio in the first half of the race without seriously pushing them, had burned less fuel and therefore had more ‘in his pocket’. Does the team’s failure to set him a target lap time, as they did with Hamilton, equate to favouritism? As conspiracy theories go, this is very thin gruel.

Still, as I said, it doesn’t matter whether there is any favouritism or not. What matters is the individual’s belief that it exists. At the end of the FIA press conference there was an illuminating exchange prompted by F1’s pre-eminent banana-eater, Michael Schmidt:

Q: Lewis, what happened at the pit stop because Sebastian was able to jump you. Was there any problem?

LH: I don’t know, I have to…

MW: We put fuel in, I think, at the pit stop.

LH: It seemed to be quite a…

MW: My guys weren’t quick and I thought ‘Lewis’s guys are also having a bit of a break.’

In the toxic mental landscape of the paranoid, even a sticky rear wheelnut can be taken as evidence. Mark Webber clearly has a monkey on his back. Is there one astride Lewis Hamilton’s shoulders too?

What Sebastian Vettel needs…

Mark Webber: hard but fair? Photo by Darren Heath

Mark Webber: hard but fair? Photo by Darren Heath

Mike Conway, currently recuperating from major surgery to his legs and spine, will know precisely what AJ Foyt meant when he described the consequences of two cars touching at racing speed on the banking at Indianapolis: “School’s out, baby.”

As the simmering tension behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing manifested itself before our very eyes at Turn 12 of Istanbul Park on Sunday, I was minded of another quote – one that is (pluggety plug) going to feature in my next book. Graham Hill, in a 1967 interview, said:

I have a little mental card index for every driver. No driver responds in exactly the same way, so I have this little mental index which I look up whenever I come up on another driver so that I know what to expect from him. If you know all this, obviously you’re not going to put yourself in a position which might be very embarrassing.

This might sound terribly self-righteous, and I don’t intend it to be, but very often a lot of near misses can be anticipated and this comes through experience with the people you’re driving against.

If Sebastian Vettel was in possession of such a card index he’d have known not to swerve into the path of Mark Webber in a crass attempt to intimidate him out of the way (if that’s what it was). Steering a Formula 1 car is like flying a kite; at 200mph the merest dip of the hand on the steering wheel can induce a sharp change of direction. Close analysis of the onboard footage shows that this is what Vettel did.

Webber? He moves over for no one. That nugget would come at the top of his entry in the card index. He is hard but fair, and tough as old boots.

On the face of it, a racing incident – an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Behind it we can trace the fault lines of an increasingly fractious relationship – not so much between the drivers as between the racing team and Red Bull itself.

Commentators have been quick to accuse the team of outright bias towards Vettel. Let’s look at that in a level-headed way, shall we? Both Red Bull and McLaren approached the Turkish Grand Prix with a risky fuel strategy; McLaren were running light so as to push, and their quarry was doing the same in the hope that they could build a gap and then turn down the wick later.

The consequence of these opposed tactics was that Red Bull entered the middle segment of the race without the gap they desired. Worse, by lap 38, when Webber was instructed to change to a leaner fuel map, Vettel was carrying around a kilo more fuel – whether this is because he had embarked with more, or had burned less through running in the slipstream of Hamilton and then Webber, is open to question. Either way, Vettel had three more laps at full chat before he too would have to ‘lean off’.

We know what happened next on-track. Off it, the picture is murkier. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport consultant, gave an interview to the energy drink’s TV channel on Monday in which he pointed the finger at Webber’s engineer, Ciaron Pilbeam, for failing to communicate the fact that Vettel was approaching rapidly in the laps before the collision.

On Sunday evening several journalists were briefed to the effect that Christian Horner had instructed Pilbeam to tell Webber to move over and let Vettel past, but that Pilbeam had been unable to bring himself to do so. This conversational lull may be what Marko was alluding to.

In an interview with the official Formula 1 website, Marko also emitted the following curious piece of doublethink:

The fact is that if Sebastian hadn’t passed [Webber] he would have been overtaken by Hamilton.

The manoeuvre was certainly born of desperation. And the irony here is that Hamilton was also fuel-critical. Still, it begs the question: why was protecting Vettel’s position the priority? Why should Webber sacrifice his lead?

You could make a strong argument here for saying that Vettel is the favoured driver at a most senior level – not so much within the race team, but back in Salzburg, whence the money flows. Marko has the ear of Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz and he was the most unequivocal in blaming Webber – when the majority of experts saw it quite differently. Horner initially sat on the fence, but during the course of Sunday evening gravitated towards the Marko view; interestingly, he appears to have dragged Marko back to a position of neutrality in their most recent pronouncements.

Helmut Marko: Give this man a boating lake! Photo by Darren Heath

Helmut Marko: Give this man a boating lake! Photo by Darren Heath

Webber’s key failings are that he is too old and not cool enough for Red Bull’s core demographic, and above all that he is neither German nor a product of the Red Bull young driver scheme (overseen by – ah yes – Helmut Marko).

Not that being any of the above would have yielded Webber any benefit as he hauled himself up the ladder all those years ago. Marko’s attention-deficit approach to superintending the careers of young drivers has wrecked every one but Vettel’s thus far; perhaps his management style would be better suited to running a small boating lake. You know: “Come in number six, your time is up…”