Conclusions From The European GP
The 'luck' involved in Fernando Alonso's victory has been greatly exaggerated, while McLaren's problems may have been misidentified and under-estimated...
Last Updated: 26/06/12 2:00pm
Nothing Lucky About Fernando's Win
Given that there is nothing lucky or unlucky about another car being unreliable in a race that is both a marathon and a sprint, the most fortunate aspect of Fernando Alonso's victory wasn't the retirement of Sebastian Vettel or Romain Grosjean. Nor was it McLaren's latest pit-stop blunder or the deployment of the Safety Car. No, Fernando's most fortunate moment was when Lewis Hamilton caught Kimi Raikkonen napping at the restart, in the process putting a substantial buffer between the Ferrari and the only driver who, ultimately, could have beaten the Spaniard. And probably should have done.
Underpinning that assertion is the presumption that Vettel's engine did not overheat behind the Safety Car and would have blown a fuse even in an uninterrupted race. Given that Grosjean was also forced into retirement with an alternator failure, and his Renault engine blew seven laps after the race was resumed, it seems a fair one to make.
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As for McLaren's calamity, it certainly offered Alonso a helping hand, but his vastly superior pace in the laps that preceded the Safety Car's appearance had already made plain that he had the beating of Lewis regardless of any outside interference; McLaren merely gifted what he was bound to take sooner rather than later. Nor did McLaren's blunder offer Alonso an advantage vis-a-vis Raikkonen because Hamilton's stay in the pits was sufficiently tardy for the Lotus to jump him as well - hence why Lewis then lined up at the restart behind Raikkonen.
And thus occurred the pyrrhic pass of Hamilton - pyrrhic because, far from aiding his cause, it eventually proved to be the final decisive play in the victory of one of his World Championship rivals.
Again, there is an assumption to be made, namely that Raikkonen would have been quicker at the close of the race. But, again, it seems a legitimate one to make because the Lotus was faster than Ferrari throughout the weekend and had Raikkonen not been stuck behind Hamilton then he would have surely been able to capitalise when Alonso reported over his radio that his tyres were "finished" with eight laps remaining. Instead, Raikkonen took another four laps to round the faltering McLaren, by which point Alonso had extended his lead to eight seconds. Once in clear air, Raikkonen immediately reduced his arrears by two seconds, but by then Alonso was already crossing the line for his final lap with the race in the bag.
The only remaining question to be asked is whether it should be considered Alonso's good luck or mere happenstance that Raikkonen wasn't where he really ought to have been. The Finn made an error almost at the exact moment that Alonso was pulling off the move of the race. That was ultimately the difference; one driver making his way forward, another his undoing. What's lucky about that?
Red Bull Might Be Pushing Too Hard
If Christian Horner really believes that the "statistics say Fernando has to have one bad weekend in twenty", the Red Bull boss should look away now because the record books now declare that Alonso has scored points in each of the last twenty grands pix, finishing in the top five in all but two of those races. He's a human metronome in a bullet-proof car.
The irony of Horner's remarks is that they were made after a race when a feature of a bygone era returned to F1: unreliability. It has been astonishingly rare for F1 cars to break down in recent years, but on Sunday both Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean were denied probable victories by broken machinery.
That they both suffered an alternator failure on their Renault engine is an immediate mitigation to any criticism of Red Bull's methods, but the problems Mark Webber suffered on Saturday, resulting in his exit from Q1, had already served to suggest the biggest threat to Red Bull is not from Alonso or McLaren, but themselves.
As uttered in our qualifying report, teething problems are inevitable when a raft of changes is made to finely-tuned machinery and the only surprise on Sunday in the wake of Red Bull reputedly changing 70% of the RB8 is that Vettel's demise was caused by a broken engine rather than a malfunctioning part. After winning back-to-back Constructor and Drivers' Championships, the success of the team's make-it-and-use-it approach is self-evident and beyond serious reproach, but a passing thought on Sunday night is that the team have been spooked by this year's competitiveness into trying too hard and pushing too far.
Reviewed in the wake of what followed, the reported 'boast' by a team member on Thursday night that the weekend's upgraded car amounted to a "a d-spec not a b-spec" also spoke of a degree of desperation. So too, perhaps, Horner's prediction that Alonso is due to a bad result. Red Bull are no longer having their own way and it is patently obvious that it's making them uncomfortable.
No Time To Settle Down Yet
Yet it's also surely the case that Red Bull's Valencia pace will have made everyone else uncomfortable, too. Had Jean-Eric Vergne's moment of ineptitude not resulted in the Safety Car being deployed then Vettel was on course to rewind 2012 back to 2011's dominance and even the two Lotuses, the second-fastest cars on show, were almost half a minute behind within 25 laps of the start.
The race is now on to copy the RB8's updated floor which, in layman's terms, feeds air to the underside of the diffuser. However, given that the team have effectively spent the last four months fine-tuning their complicated design, a facsimile may be easier to spell than produce.
That Lewis Hamilton repeatedly bemoaned the absence of any upgrades on the McLaren also spoke volumes, although what message he was sending out remains unclear: straightforward disgruntlement, a loss of faith in McLaren, or a hankering for a transfer to Red Bull? Whatever the answer, McLaren are expected to respond with a raft of changes on the MP4-27 at Silverstone. Partly to assuage their understandably-frustrated and yet-to recommit driver , but mainly to ward off the clear threat of a humiliating defeat to Red Bull on home soil, they will need to.
A botched pit-stop may have borne the brunt of the post-race opprobrium that poured McLaren's way on Sunday night, but it was their car's missing pace that really ought to have been the cause for annoyance and alarm. With every passing week in which Jenson Button is reduced to a midfield backmarker without remedy, the suspicion is reinforced that Hamilton is currently far exceeding his car's capabilities in a way that only Alonso can understand.
It's Maldonado Who Should Be Learning From Hamilton
How very strange, meanwhile, that Hamilton has been advised to change his 'approach' when driving against Pastor Maldonado when it was the Williams driver who was exclusively found guilty of wrongdoing by the stewards. It's the South American who needs to change his approach and if he needs some guidance how then he'd be wise to review footage of this month's Canadian GP and note the way in which Hamilton curbed his usual bludgeoning style to wait patiently behind Fernando before overtaking the tyre-stricken Ferrari along the backstraight.
Hamilton Still A Guaranteed Winner Of The Blame Game
There is something to be said for the argument that Hamilton ought to have backed off and ceded his position to Maldonado, but not much. With the fifth-placed Nico Hulkenberg closing at a second-per-sector, Hamilton had no time to lose and his defence was in any case inherently passive: with the McLaren taking the racing, rather than a defensive, line into Turn 12, the Williams was given more room than Grosjean had required to cleanly complete his pass up the inside of Hamilton's McLaren earlier in the race.
Somewhere lost in this squalid tale is an impressive reflection of Grosjean. Not merely did he pull off a move on the first lap to pass Maldonado that team-mate Raikkonen couldn't in identical machinery, but the move he made on Hamilton was one that both Maldonado and Felipe Massa, against a Force India, couldn't in far easier circumstances. The boy of 2009 has retuned as a class act in 2012.
But that's by the by. It is Hamilton who has been cast as the story's chief protagonist, as he always seems to be. It is another big-screen illustration of his box office status within the sport that so many have strived to blame him for Maldonado's stark wrongdoing. Incredibly, but nonetheless predictably, some have even sought to find evidence of guilt in his post-race refusal to castigate the Venezuelan. 'Perhaps his lack of post-race recrimination underlined his culpability', declared one former broadsheet. Damned if he reacts, damned if he restrains: it goes without typing that the same publication castigated Hamilton's refusal to accept the blame when he crashed into Maldonado at Monaco fourteen months ago.
As for the idea that Hamilton ought to have gifted a position to Maldonado this weekend without a fight, it ought to also go without reminding that both Vettel and Alonso chased victory at the expense of a podium in Canada while Ferrari gambled on chasing pole position on Saturday by saving a set of soft tyres saved through Q2 and suffered their worst qualifying result since Australia as a result.
Racing for the maximum is what racers do; it's what Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso all instintively do - no matter how many times in public they proclaim the virtues of consistency and the value of every point - and it's why they are the best at what they do.
Vergne's Time Is Not Yet...But It May Still Come
That Jean-Eric Vergne is currently out of his depth in F1 is not a difficult argument to make in the wake of his dreadful whack into the side of the Caterham on Sunday. But his time may yet come. To repeat the point above: Grosjean appeared equally hopeless during his first stint in F1 but three years later he has returned to register potential-superstar status in just eight races. Not only has the Frenchman been a revelation, he's also a trenchant warning against writing off a proper career in F1 for Vergne - still a year younger than Grosjean was when he debuted at Valencia in 2009 - in the future.
At present, however, it's all a bit of a struggle for Toro Rosso's 22-year-old rookie.
It's an uninspiring line for an uninspiring contest, but the most interesting thing about the in-house battle at Toro Rosso is how uninteresting it has been. What promised at the season's start to perhaps be the most fiercely-contested team-mate battle has instead fizzled out into a walkover, with Daniel Ricciardo not so much beating Vergne as meting out a trouncing.
There is some interest surrounding one of Vergne's very lonely successes, his defeat of Ricciardo in qualifying at Spain when he was on the verge of making his regular exit from Q1 before being handed an unexpected reprieve by Bruno Senna's crash. The interesting thing that followed was Vergne, four-tenths down on Riccardo at the end of Q1, subsequently out-pacing the Aussie in Q2. The data pool is small, but there's a sliver in that series of results to suggest that Vergne has the pace and potential to excel, but not yet the nerves and composure to cope with the pressure being exerted on his novice shoulders.
The overriding impression, however, is one of disappointment that a contest has failed to materialise and frustration for both drivers: Vergne because of his struggle to handle the weight of expectation and Ricciardo because, bereft of a competitor or a competitive car, his reputation has stood still. It is telling that despite the year beginning with talk of Ricciardo and Vergne being pitched into a head-to-head contest for a probable vacancy at Red Bull in 2013, there is now hardly a whisper of either driver replacing Mark Webber.
Through no fault of his own, and thus presumably to his considerable irritation, Ricciardo's reputation remains in close proximity to its standing of three months ago.
Sunday's Inflated Look
There's a nice image doing the rounds comparing Sunday's sighting of Alonso, Schumacher and Raikkonen on the podium to when they last stepped out together in F1 seven years ago. Each of them looks thinner, perhaps fitter, though not younger. Each of them is certainly better paid - perhaps the caption to accompany Sunday's image is that their podium appearance marked, in terms of wages paid, the most expensive F1 has ever witnessed.
Meanwhile, it either says something or just nothing that Alonso, Schumacher and Raikkonen have reputedly shared a F1 podium on five occasions and Fernando has stood on the top step on every occasion. He's F1's first among equals.