Conclusions from the United States GP
Celebrating the end of 2013, saluting the most improved driver on the gird, and fearing for McLaren and Lewis Hamilton
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 19/11/13 12:01pm
Another day, another win, another record
The only record Sebastian Vettel still has to break this season is the most amount of records broken in a season. Then again, he may have already broken that one too. It's just so darn difficult to keep up.
It's certainly too difficult for Vettel's peers to keep up with his Red Bull on race day. His latest triumph was his eighth in a row, setting a new record for most consecutive race victories in a single season. A ninth successive victory, barring unreliability or rain, will surely follow in Brazil. His title of the last four years says World Champion but Vettel is currently driving on a different planet to everyone else in F1.
What we're witnessing is simply brilliant and simply too easy in equal measure. As faultless as Vettel may have been in the last four months - his last defeat occurred in July, half a season ago - his ongoing superiority would be altogether more appreciable if only he faced a genuine challenge and his victories weren't quite so predictable, quite so processional, and quite so similar.
What Vettel is delivering at present isn't easy. Far from it. He has barely committed a mistake all season and every lap of relentless superiority serves as a mini-demonstration of front-running excellence. But when his RB9 is so considerably superior to the rest of the field, his team-mate has all-but checked out of the sport, and Vettel's race is won and run from the first corner onwards, the acceptance has to be that, brilliant as his performances are, his victories are not as difficult to achieve as any victory in F1 ought to be.
F1, alas, isn't difficult for Sebastian Vettel at present.
In five of those eight victories, Sebastian has led from start to finish; that's not good him, not good for F1, and sure as blazes isn't doing much for the viewing public. The pinnacle of motorsport has been reduced to a procession with one car driving in a different series to the rest and everyone else waiting impatiently in a queue for 2014.
The agonising, awkward truth of a sport built for speed is that, in 2013, Vettel and Red Bull have been too quick for everyone's own good. It's the ultimate damnation of a season which now can't end quickly enough that Vettel would be gaining more credit and more acknowledgment of his achievements if only he was a little slower.
Radio gaga reveals why the fastest driver in F1 isn't the best driver in F1
Pity Lewis Hamilton's race engineer on Sunday. Chastised for distracting his driver during the first-half of the race, he was then sternly rebuked, with an audience in the multi-millions eavesdropping, for not distracting Lewis enough in the second. Oh, and because of that long-established principle that the driver is always right, even when he was clearly wrong or at least contradictory, he couldn't even countenance answering back either.
The next time the role of race engineer in F1 is advertised in your local paper, check the small print to ensure that 'Must have the patience of a saint' is included in the job requirements.
The serious point though, and one which was alluded to in Ross Brawn's "that's Lewis, we're used to him" response, is what those outbursts told us about Hamilton and why the driver considered to be the fastest in F1 isn't necessarily the best.
Lewis is no longer a young man. He is, by F1's ever-youthening standards, something of a veteran nowadays. And yet this apparent volatility remains in his make-up just as evidently as it did when he joined the sport in 2007 and McLaren self-imploded. Why hasn't it been curbed? Partly because Lewis is just Lewis, partly because a F1 driver is always right, and partly because of that unproven - unproveable? - but much-feared process of physiological osmosis that so many talented but volatile sportsmen have sheltered behind over the years. Remove it, pacify Lewis, curb that volatility, and some of his pace will ebb away. Or so the convenient theory goes.
Yet a flaw is a flaw and in a sport of fine margins every flaw matters muchly. What those radio messages also offered, in addition to welcome relief in a race that was principally a procession, was a snapshot of the critical shortcoming in the Hamilton 'package'. He brings pace, and plenty of it, but there's also baggage to be carried, and plenty of that too.
Don't mistake his race engineer's silence as understanding because all that emotional volatility must be as draining for his crew and team as it must be internally to him too.
Red Bull and Adrian Newey is the major reason why Hamilton has - at least yet - failed to translate his talent into more than one title, but a deeper reading of those radio calls perhaps offers another.
Grosjean joins the elite
There isn't a more improved driver on the grid at present than Romain Grosjean. From first-lap nutcase to a model of consistency, the Frenchman is in acute danger of becoming the real deal. Third in Korea, third in Japan, third in India, fourth in Abu Dhabi and second in the United States, Grosjean is the only driver on the grid other than Vettel who must wish 2014 could wait a little longer.
The difficulty in believing in McLaren
It's been a long year of failures and mistakes for McLaren. Longer than a year, actually, because their first mistake probably occurred in June or July last year when, very possibly spooked by their woeful performance in the British GP, they decided on revolution not evolution with the MP4-28. That irredeemable and 2013-fatal blunder was then compounded by the failure to persuade Lewis Hamilton to stay, and this week came the official confirmation - there's no other way of interpreting the news - that the decision to hire Sergio Perez was a colossal misjudgement.
Though the team maintain that Perez's ousting was more about Magnussen than the Mexican, it's impossible not to view Sergio's dismissal as anything other than a frank admission that the team got it horribly wrong a year ago when they hired him. Given that Perez has been offered just a single season in a car which has horribly under-performed, is level with Button in qualifying, and has scored points in three of the last four races, it's also eminently arguable the team have wronged Perez. Perhaps the team themselves are aware they might have done so - or at least are aware of the perception - because Martin Whitmarsh has, in his own words, "rung Force India and rung Lotus" to tout their outgoing driver. Stop for a moment to consider just how awkward those calls must have been and it's starkly apparent just how much soul-searching must be also going on inside McLaren. 'Hello, Martin here. Just to let you know, Sergio's not good enough for us, but...'
Still, that awkwardness aside, McLaren can be applauded for once again advancing the career of a young driver and for supporting and clearly defining the purpose of their Young Driver Programme. Moreover, if it is their opinion that Magnussen, rather than Perez, is the better bet for the long-term, and more likely to world Champion, then all other counter-arguments are invalid.
The one rather large and critical caveat to that applause, however, is that their decision-making over the last fourteen months isn't exactly inspiring a huge amount of confidence that, in the process of admitting they got it spectacularly wrong before when they signed 'rough diamond' Perez on a multi-year deal, McLaren have finally got something right again.
Why doing nothing can achieve an awful lot
If only Pastor Maldonado's scandalous comments about Williams, amounting to an accusation of sabotage, talked him out of a drive for next season. Alas, in the cash-strapped world of F1, money talks louder than ever and 29m euros of sponsorship money will likely see Maldonado take the vacant seat at Lotus ahead of Nico Hulkenberg. A special delivery from Quantum may change perspective, but 29m euros - Maldonado's reputed dowry - is an amount of money which few teams can afford to lose sight of.
Despite the top-end of the market being locked down, inflation is still rampant in the driver market with too many too drivers chasing too few seats. Whatever happens at Lotus, one team facing the welcome embrace of an embarrassment of riches for next year is Sauber. The improving Esteban Gutierrez is under lock and key. Sergey Sirotkin wants in. So, too, we suspect does Perez, and so will Maldonado if Hulkenberg moves to Lotus - just as Hulkenberg will probably stay if Maldonado takes the call from Lotus.
By sitting still whilst the jockeying for position in the transfer market has raged all around them, Sauber have ended up sitting very pretty indeed. There's a lesson in there somewhere.