Conclusions From The Spanish GP
Lots of words after another extraordinary weekend of F1. And lots of words being eaten after Pastor Maldonado's stunning victory...
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 14/05/12 12:11pm
Barcelona Ends 2012's Laughing Matter
The unfunny funny thing about the fire which took hold in the Williams garage in the wake of Sunday's grand prix is that it was the first time that anything had happened this season which needed to be treated seriously.
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Because the almost-funny funny thing about 2012, and the way that the teams' relative form continues to fluctuate so wildly, with Red Bull, to pick one outfit almost at random, winners one week and lapped the next, is that the whole thing seems almost absurd. The next half of this line is an exaggeration, but without the continued excellence of Fernando Alonso and the trend-setting pace of the McLaren, we'd be verging on a farce. In a serious competition, at the pinnacle of motor-racing, built around twelve multi-million pound businesses, it really shouldn't be possible for a team to be a minute off the pace in Bahrain and then, albeit with some handy upgrades bolted on, bona fide frontrunners at Barcelona.
That's the thing about 2012: everything seems to change so quickly. Lewis Hamilton's sulk in Melbourne seems an eon ago. Mercedes' breakthrough in Bahrain is now already the veteran of a lifetime. And on Sunday night, as the severity of the fire and its consequences became horribly apparent, even Williams' victory just a few hours beforehand suddenly felt instantly dated. Everything this year seems fleeting and, as a result, nothing seen yet ought to be taken too seriously (except, perhaps, the clear evidence that Felipe Massa's days in the sport are short on numbers).
It's all a little frivolous and none of the mistakes and triumphs hitherto witnessed have assumed any sort of critical importance, let alone taken the form of a decisive shift in power. With five different victors in the year's first five races, F1 seems currently stuck in a wild state of flux.
As entertainment, F1 has never been better. Every race has been extraordinary. Every race has been unmissable, every race has been riveting. Yet the nagging concern that ceased to be much of a concern as smoke billowed down the Barcelona pitlane is that F1 is close to having an audience with that old adage there can easily be too much of a good thing.
What this season probably now needs is a set of back-to-back victories, inspired by the successful marriage of car and driver rather than a special set of fluctuating circumstances. What this season needs now is something on the track demand to be taken seriously.
Pastor Causes A Feast
Truthful now, who really knew that Pastor Maldonado, previously the very modest embodiment of a pay driver, was capable of such a performance? Fastest in Qualy 2, eventually deemed fastest in Qualy 3, and fastest overall on Sunday, Maldonado's career-highlight in Barcelona was arguably the most complete performance any driver has managed to produce this season (and thus, maybe, a broad hint that Williams' race-winning pace was based on something integral rather than fleeting circumstances).
In retrospect, there was enough credit in the history of Maldonado's multi-series motor-racing career to have previously suggested he deserved better than the scorn he received last season. In balance, there was also almost nothing in his performances last season to suggest he could beat Fernando Alonso in a straight fight. Either way, rarely can a victory have resulted in such a packed feast of words-eating. Rarely, too, can a double-breakthrough triumph have received so little celebratory attention, with the confirmation of Pastor's maiden pole position almost entirely overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton's expulsion and his victory celebrations a day later literally going up in smoke.
Not that the novelty of Pastor's situation was ever apparent as he held off Alonso without any hint of nerves, skilfully maximising his pace around the fiddly final segment of the lap in order to just remain out of Alonso's reach in the DRS zone. It was a deserved lead, too. Ferrari might have dallied when they ought to have taken the second pit-stop, and Fernando might have been delayed behind Charles Pic's Marussia, but the trump card was the searing lap - the fastest of the race at that stage - Maldonado produced on new tyres straight out of his stop.
In a sport proud of its reputation for advancing skill, one of the very best features of the current season has been the nerveless maturity with which each of the three 'breakthrough' drivers- Sergio Perez in Malaysia, Nico Rosberg in China and now Maldonado in Spain - have taken their opportunity. Whilst everything else about 2012 has been unpredictable, their performances certainly bear out the pre-season assessment that this year's field boasts unique depth.
A Bittersweet Return To The Office For Kimi
A cheap line after the Bahrain GP was that it was a measure of how far Lotus have progressed that they were unhappy not to have won. In Barcelona, there was no doubting the conviction of Kimi Raikkonen's unhappiness at finishing third. It's just as well that Kimi remains as taciturn as ever because, judging by the look on his face in the post-race presser, anything he said would have had to wait until the 9pm watershed before being deemed fit for broadcast.
Still, it wasn't all bad news for Kimi: his defeat of Romain Grosjean, an ever-present at the Mugello test, at least offered vindication of his decision to give the event a wide berth.
No Answers Yet To The Pirelli Puzzle
Back to the tyred old issue of 2012 because, for better or for worse, and delete according to whether your first sympathy is towards the purity of the racing or the entertainment of the spectacle, there's just no ignoring the Pirellis when commentating on the current season.
That the teams are still yet to fathom this year's rubber was once again apparent in Barcelona with the balance of power on Sunday wildly divergent from the state of play on Friday. It's not merely that the pecking order shifts from track to track, it is changing from day to day and continued to do so this weekend on a track that the teams understand better than any other. So much for the valid expectation that the familiarity of Barcelona would restore a measure of order to the pecking order - an exasperation which begs the obvious question of just when, and indeed whether, a definite pecking order will belatedly emerge this season.
All that can be understood at this stage is that there are things happening with the tyres that the teams, four months since their first date with the 2012 Pirellis, are yet to understand. On Sunday, the hard compound, and not the softs, proved to be the race tyre of choice, with both compounds apparently ultra-sensitive to the slightest deviation in temperature and Lewis Hamilton comparatively faster at the culmination of a 31-lap stint than he was at its outset.
And then there's the puzzle of just how to race on tyres that are so reactionary to the type of air it experiences. "You have to look after your tyres and when you catch people your tyres get killed, so it's chicken and egg," reflected a bemused Mark Webber. "If you push past them, you have to pit earlier and commit to another stop."
The novelty of confusion is wearing thin. Puzzles offering a solution may be fun, but riddles without an answer only wear down to tedium.
Hamilton Makes A Couple Of Vital Points
Points salvaged by Lewis Hamilton and a point made on a two-stop strategy to silence the regular barb that he is a tyre eater. The McLaren driver's damage limitation act was a drive of excellence, his long-distance running punctuated by finely-judged sprints and the move of the day as he rounded both Toro Rossos in a single swoop.
The question of whether either Maldonado or Alonso would have been able to rebuff Hamilton had he not been expelled to the back of the grid will be forever debated and never conclusively answered, but there can be no argument that McLaren are making very hard work of a season their pace ought to be dominating. It's another of those unfunny funny things that just as Alonso is challenging for the championship in spite of his car, Hamilton is being forced to maintain his title tilt in defiance of his team.
The suspicion that McLaren were aware that Hamilton's car was under-fuelled for his final run in qualifying in sufficient time to call on their driver to abandon his lap seems to be, judging by the smallprint in some of Sunday morning's commentaries and interviews, well founded. Hindsight is not only made with 20-20 vision but also at leisure, and the instant mitigation has to be that the team only had a few precious seconds in which to make a very tough call. The flip-side of the same debate, however, is damning: the ability to make finely-judged calls in highly-pressurised circumstances is what certain very well-remunerated team personnel are paid to do and their misjudgement essentially seems to have boiled down to the belief that Hamilton would not be expelled from qualifying even though, as the shortage of fuel amounted to a technical rather sporting infringement, expulsion was the only punishment available to the stewards.
Whether or not the team could prove that the mistake was inadvertent or even that Hamilton had been adequately fuelled for his previous laps in Qualifying was thus academic. If there's a quibble to be made it's that an under-fuelled car is permitted to immediately stop at the end of a grand prix without penalty, whereas doing so at the culmination of any session over the weekend triggers expulsion. There's more than a few litres of anomaly in that loop-hole.
A Telling Left-Off For Vergne
So now we'll have two careers in F1 for Jean-Eric Vergne: The one which will continue in the wake of his defeat of Daniel Ricciardo on Saturday and Sunday in Barcelona and its hypothetical alternative in which Bruno Senna had not reprieved the Frenchman from the drop in Q3 by crashing out at the first hurdle in a car fit for victory. On such slender margins can careers be salvaged. Who knows what impact a fourth-successive instant exit from Qualy would have had on Vergne, but it's to his noteworthy credit that he then capitalised on his let-off by out-qualifying Ricciardo and leaving the Australian seven seconds south in the race. Their rivalry is finally beginning to simmer.