The Formula 1 Shanghai Grand Prix: Surprises…and Delights!

The Shanghai Grand Prix was more about team and driver-strategy rather than all out racing and speed. Here is a detailed race review of the high-voltage tactical shoot-out over the weekend.  

(Race 3; April 12, 13, 14, 2013)

Fernando Alonso drove a masterful race to take the 2013 Shanghai GP.

Fernando Alonso drove a masterful race to take the 2013 Shanghai GP.

Qualifying Quandary

Qualifying was a messy, messy affair. With Pirelli offering only two tyre compounds – Soft and Medium – for the race, the teams were extremely tentative. The soft compounds were wearing far too quickly for comfort which forced the top 10 drivers to conserve them for the race.  For Q3, all of them, without exception, waited out a full eight minutes of the 10-minute session, before a few dared to put in a couple of cursory laps.

World Champion, Sebastian Vettel started his run in the last-minute in an effort to best Lewis Hamilton’s lap time of 1:34:484s to wrest pole position, but ended up on the grass after a brake failure that caused some damage to the set of medium tyres that he was to start the race with. Vettel scraped through in his only timed lap of Q3 to P9.  His team-mate, Mark Webber had it worse! His car was short-fuelled by some 3kg thereby relegating the hapless Australian to a pit lane start at P22.

After a none-too-impressive set of runs in Q1 and Q2, Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen put in a flying lap that clocked 1:34:761s to place him at P2. This was the first time since 2009 that the Finn was to start at the top of the grid. Team-mate Romain Grosjean too was impressive and garnered a respectable P6 start raising hopes of a high points finish for the Lotus Team in their assault at the 2013 Constructors Championship.

The Ferraris showed consistent performance during all three qualifiers and both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa slotted themselves at P3 and P5 respectively with Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg splitting the pair at P4.

If there were any surprises, it was the vastly improved showing by Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo who came in at P7.

The last two positions – P8 and P10 – were taken by 2009 World Champion Jensen Button and Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber.

The major disappointments in qualifying were Force India, the team which despite showing a lot of promise and pace in the last couple of races, ended outside the top 10. Paul Di Resta ended his charge in Q2 to be placed P11 while Adrina Sutil slotted in at P13.

Race Laps 1 – 15

Hamilton made a decent getaway to maintain pole position at the start of the race. However, Kimi Raikkonen had an electronics failure and a resultant wheel lock that delayed his start and allowed the two Ferraris of Alonso and Massa to easily overtake and claim P2 and P3 respectively. When Raikkonen finally got going, he had to fight off the marauding cars at the back in order to somehow maintain his position at P4 – it was an excellent recovery.

There was a mêlée of sorts between the mid-runners with Grosjean (Lotus) and Rosberg (Mercedes) battling for the 5th place. Rosberg managed to hold track position briefly, and lost it to the Frenchman in the very next lap. The Lotuses were now running at P4 and P5.

Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta have an early mishap

Force India drivers Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta have an early mishap

Meanwhile, Force India’s race was going awry when Sutil knocked Di Resta off the track forcing the Scotsman to lose a couple of grid positions in the bargain. By the time Di Resta recovered and moved up a place, the two were running at P13 and P14 respectively.

At the back of the grid, Webber was the first of the drivers to pit (Lap 2). The idea was to get rid of his soft tyres and get on to the mediums with the hope of going longer and consequently work his way into the middle of the pack as other drivers pitted.

It was in Lap 5, that the Shanghai Grand Prix exploded to life. Alonso blasted in right behind Hamilton and used the outside race line to the Englishman’s left to take the lead in one swooping overtaking manoeuvre. Almost simultaneously, Massa cut to the right of Hamilton to take the inside line and zip past him to take 2nd place. Within a fraction of a second, Hamilton had lost two grid places and his race seemed to be headed downhill with Raikkonen now monstering all over his back wing!

His team-mate Rosberg was faring no better! Struggling with tyre-wear and hardly any traction on his soft compounds, the German was forced to concede track position – first to Hulkenberg and then to a rapidly advancing Vettel. The champion’s strategy of starting on mediums was beginning to pay dividends.

This forced the Mercedes drivers to double-stack in the pits! Hamilton was released first and he rejoined the race at P16 while Rosberg had to be content with P18. Meanwhile, Sauber’s rookie driver, Esteban Gutierrez ploughed into the back of Force India’s Sutil effectively ending the race for both. Sutil limped back into the pits with a broken rear wing and fire spitting out of his rear brakes.

Lap 7 saw Alonso make his first pit-stop while Massa decided to stay out thereby putting him in the lead for the first time. Raikkonen too came in for a tyre change in the same lap. The leader board now read Massa, Hulkenberg, Vettel, Button, Grosjean, Sergio Perez (McLaren), Di Resta, Pastor Maldonando (Williams), Valterri Bottas (Williams) and Jean Eric Vergne (Torro Rosso). However, every one of them bar Vettel, was due for their first stop.

In the interim, Webber had worked his way to P14, but his medium tyres had started to wear alarmingly considering that his gear and rev settings were cranked up to the maximum in order to facilitate overtaking. He was asked to come in to pit on Lap 8.

Massa too was now lapping almost two seconds slower in some sectors and was asked by Team Ferrari to box at the end of Lap 7. The pit-stop was a disaster as it lost Massa 11 positions and he had to rejoin the race at P12.

This put Hulkenberg in the lead for the first time, hotly pursued by Vettel. The top two were followed by a steady Button, Perez and Di Resta. During the frenetic pit-stops and shunts, Alonso (P7), Hamilton (P8) and Raikkonen (10) had quietly moved back up the field and into the top 10. By Lap 9, both Alonso and Hamilton duly passed Vergne and Raikkonen glided past Bottas. The top 5 drivers at the 13-lap stage had not pitted for tyres even once but Di Resta now flagging considerably, was passed by Alonso who then began to threaten Perez’s 4th place. It was only a matter of minutes before Hamilton followed suit.

It wasn’t until Lap 14 that both Hulkenberg and Vettel decided that they had enough and made their first pit-stops for the race. When they were released, Vettel sneaked ahead of the Suber driver, thanks again to an excellent pit-stop (2.5s) by Red Bull crew pushing him back in at P9 while Hulkenberg rejoined at P11.

The Webber-Vergne (Torro Rosso) collision

The Webber-Vergne (Torro Rosso) collision

Just when everyone thought that the action for the first quarter of the race was over, Webber made contact with Vergne’s Torro Rosso ending the Frenchman’s race whilst himself suffering a badly damaged front wing! With the car losing downforce rapidly, Webber was forced to make an unscheduled pit-stop at the end of the lap to replace the broken wing.

End of Lap 15: 1. Button (McLaren) 2. Alonso (Ferrari) 3. Perez (McLaren) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Vettel (Red Bull) 8 Webber (Red Bull) 9. Rosberg (Mercedes) 10. Hulkenberg (Sauber).

Race Laps 16 – 30

The start of the 16th lap was no different in terms of the chaotic action witnessed in the first 15 laps. It started with Raikkonen chasing down a much slower Perez whose tyres were by now shot to bits. As the Mexican slowed on the corner, Raikkonen went straight into the back of the McLaren which resulted in a damaged front wing and a broken car nose!

A small portion of the tip of the Finn’s car was ripped and flapping in the onrushing air. The worry for Team Lotus at this stage was whether this would seriously impact and compromise Raikkonen’s race but after brief chat over the radio decided it was best for him to soldier on without change in the team’s original race strategy of three stops. However, he couldn’t resist remarking, “What the hell is he doing!” It was classic Kimi!

Raikkonen duly completed a pass on Perez to get back into P4.

Webber loses his right tyre and retires to cap a miserable weekend!

Webber loses his rear right tyre and retires to cap a miserable weekend!

Meanwhile, Webber who had just pitted and rejoined the field began to lose pace and was sputtering down to a crawl. And just when every one thought matters couldn’t get any worse for him, on his limp back to the pits one of his rear tyres broke free from the wheel and began a precarious roll across the middle of the track and right in the way of the following drivers – one of them being a certain Sebastian Vettel!  (To make matters even worse, the race stewards later found Webber guilty of the accident with Vergne earlier, and have penalised him with a 3-place grid penalty for the next race in Bahrain!)

At the top of the grid, Alonso was now the race leader having overtaken Button, who remarkably was continuing on his start tyres and had now gone 20 laps without a change. Vettel continued his resurgent run and cleanly passed Perez to get back into contention for a podium. He was now chasing Raikkonen for P4, who in turn, was hot on Hamilton’s heels at P3! This epic battle continued into the pits when both drivers made their second stops on Lap 22. Vettel had by now passed a fast-fading Button to slot himself behind race leader Alonso at P2.

Hamilton and Raikkonen rejoined at P9 and 10 in that order but were on fresh new medium compounds. Very soon, they were all over the likes of Ricciardo but the slower cars bunched up in the middle were creating problems in terms of race pace for them. It took some doing before regaining their places at P4 and P5 respectively just behind Hulkenberg who was driving a terrific race to sneak his way back into P3.

A while earlier, on Lap 21, Rosberg made yet another pit-stop, a terrible one at that. He did not have to rue that mishap because he was forced to retire after a couple more laps with a mechanical failure.

On Lap 23, Button finally came into the pits behind Alonso who made his second stop of the race. While Alonso joined at P3, Button gained tremendously with his fewer stops strategy by re-entering the fray at P5. This put him just ahead of Raikkonen at this stage of the race.

Jensen Button, McLaren made his tyres work for 24 laps in the first stint.

Jensen Button, McLaren made his tyres work for 23 laps in the first stint.

The lead was back in the hands of the world champion, Vettel. In the middle of the field, former team-mates Button and Hamilton were locked in a dogfight which the latter won comfortably at the start of Lap 29. Using the faster pace of the Mercedes and the DRS zone, Hamilton clipped past Button effortlessly to get to P4.

At the same time, the top end of the grid was seeing a fantastic battle between Vettel and Alonso or pole with the Spaniard relentlessly attacking the former. His opening came soon enough when on one of the later turns, he cut to the inside of Vettel and blazed his way past to snatch the lead. His tyres at this stage were nine laps fresher than Vettel’s.

Hulkenberg who was at P5 by this time having been passed by both Hamilton and Button now decided to get back into the pits to change his tyres to the soft compounds with the view to do a quick middle stint and probably get back to the top of the leader board. The stop dropped him back to P8.

End of Lap 30: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Button (McLaren) 5. Raikkonen (Lotus) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Grosjean (Lotus) 10. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso).

Race Laps 31 – 45:

This is probably the most sedate phase of any Grand Prix race (by F1 standards that is!). The cars are evenly spread out with the leaders enjoying comfortable distances between them and the middle of the pack. If there are any apprehensions for those at the top of the grid, it is about encountering the back-markers that have been lapped or then making an untimely pit-stop and ending up behind the pack of middle runners. In both cases, accidents or being held up by the slower cars is common.

Back in the thick of the action, Lap 31 saw Raikkonen on the tail of Button and passing him easily on the last turn of the Shanghai circuit.

Vettel pitted on Lap 31, his second stop of the race and as he went out again, encountered Massa’s thundering Ferrari. The champion, however, stayed ice-cool to execute the pass just on the turn after the pit lane exit. On the very next turn, he simply blazed past Force India’s Di Resta. His sights were now trained on Hulkenberg’s Sauber in P5. That pass was easily achieved on the DRS straight and Vettel in a short span of less than a lap was comfortably ensconced at P5. The champion was back driving at his very best!

Nico Hulkenberg, Sauber led the Shanghai GP 2013 briefly, but ended up at P10.

Nico Hulkenberg, Sauber led the Shanghai GP 2013 briefly, but ended up at P10.

During the same time, Raikkonen had narrowed the gap with Hamilton to within 1.2 seconds. The Finnish legend gave up the chase temporarily and made his third pit-stop on Lap 35. When he returned he had lost 4 grid places to P8, but was one of the first to get on to a fresh set of rubbers among the top runners. It was clear that Raikkonen was going to stay on the new set of medium compounds for 21 laps until the end of the race. His longest stint had been saved up for the last leg of the Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, Vettel had started to close in on Button, whose only second set of tyres were now running out of grip and life. The German had far superior traction and on Lap 36, put the hammer down in the DRS zone and made the pass stick. Massa by now had faded away from the top five now decided to take a final gamble by pitting before team-mate Alonso on Lap 37. Hulkenberg too came in for a change of compounds and settled for a final stint on medium tyres.

By the start of Lap 38, Alonso had opened up a 13.4 second lead from Hamilton 19 seconds from Vettel, 21 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. But the Spaniard was due for a final pit-stop.

It was Hamilton, however, who decided to relinquish P2 to come in for his last tyre change with a view to make an all-out final charge to the finish line. On release, Hamilton joined in just behind Kimi Raikkonen in P6 which meant that the Mercedes pit strategy was spot on.

In quick succession, both the drivers swept past Ricciardo who by staying out late was in 4th place, thereby relegating him to P6. At the lead, Alonso was absolutely flying by now and extended his lead to 19-odd seconds from Vettel, 24 seconds from Button and 30 seconds from Raikkonen. With all of them yet to make their final stops, Alonso and Team Ferrari were pretty confident that he would rejoin the race yet again in the lead. It was near perfect pit-stop strategy from the Italian outfit. The Spaniard was finally called in for his last tyre stop at the end of Lap 40 and came out to rejoin at P2 just behind Vettel.

By lap 42 it was Hamilton who was doing all the flying having just set the fastest lap of the race. At the top of the grid, Alonso, now on a set of fresh medium compound tyres, swept past Vettel to regain the lead at the start of Lap 43. It was enthralling stuff!

IN Lap 44, Raikkonen finally made his move on Button, overtaking him to claim P3. It was only a matter of time before Hamilton was going to do the same to his former team-mate and after a short chase on his fresher rubber, eased past Button on the sweeping Turn 4.

Driving with a broken car nose, Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus holds off Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Driving with a broken car nose, Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus holds off Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

End of Lap 45: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Vettel (Red Bull) 3. Raikkonen (Lotus) 4. Hamilton (Mercedes) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Di Resta (Force India) 7. Massa (Ferrari) 8. Hulkenberg (Sauber) 9. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso), 10. Grosjean (Lotus).

Race Laps 46 – 56: End Game!

With the last 10 laps of the Shanghai Grand Prix remaining, drivers had enough clean air between each other. It looked like the order at the end of Lap 45 would be maintained but there was the small matter of Vettel and Button having to pit for their final tyre changes, and that was going to jumble up the leader board yet again! There was speculation at this stage on whether Vettel would continue on his fraying medium tyres to complete the race with just two stops in order to claim a 2nd place podium finish. Button too looked like he might hold position and risk the final 10 laps on the same rubbers.

While Raikkonen and Hamilton continued on their epic racing saga at P3 and P4, Button eventually came back into the pits for his final tyre change on Lap 50. He conceded P5 to Di Resta and by the time he came back on track, he was down to P7. In Lap 51, Team Red Bull called Vettel in for his final pit-stop and sent him out on the soft compounds for a final concerted assault on the podium position runners. The radio message as he rejoined the field was, “Race to the finish!” It was going to be offense from the German, a fight to the finish. He moved past Di Resta to get P4 and then began his attack on Hamilton by setting the fastest lap of the race.

With two laps to go, Vettel was still around 6.5 seconds behind Hamilton but gaining rapidly thanks to the faster soft compounds that he was on now. Quite expectedly he cut the lead between the two down to 4 seconds by Lap 55 and 2 seconds in the final lap! Hamilton was under tremendous pressure from the German now.

Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel blazes his way across the track in the last lap

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel blazes his way across the track in the last lap

Fernando Alonso eventually cleared the line to take the chequered flag with Raikkonen comfortably cruising into second place; fittingly too because this was Ferrari’s 500th Formula 1 race.

But the Hamilton-Vettel dogfight still had some sting left in the tail. Into the last straight, Hamilton’s wheel locked up emitting plumes of smoke even as Vettel closed in for the kill. In the final few paces, Hamilton barely scraped through at P3 with the 3-time World Drivers Champion a mere 2/10th of a second behind in 4th place!

Shanghai had delivered!

Final Standings: 1. Alonso (Ferrari) 2. Raikkonen (Lotus) 3. Hamilton (Mercedes) 4. Vettel (Red Bull) 5. Button (McLaren) 6. Massa (Ferrari) 7. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso) 8. Di Resta (Force India) 9. Grojean (Lotus) 10. Hulkenberg.

Next edition: The Shanghai Stats Sheet

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Part III: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

The final edition of  the Predictions Series with the last two contenders – Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing and Felipe Massa, Ferrari.

5. Mark Webber, RBR (Australia): 2012 Season – Wins 2; Podiums 4; Points 179

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 26

Mark Webber on the big screen. Photo Credit: CKK

Mark Webber on the big screen. Photo Credit: CKK

To many F1 racing aficionados, Mark Webber being touted as a title contender might sound a trifle incongruous. At 36, he is the veteran driver on the grid, has made 200 race starts and yet, never won a World Driver’s Title since he made his début for Minardi way back in 2002.

Webber’s class as a F1 driver has never been in question, but his ability to go for the kill and close out the competition in the latter stages of the season, has. As if to make matters more difficult for Webber, Helmut Marko, the team’s consultant and right-hand man of owner Dietrich Mateschitz, went on record at the start of the 2013 Season by declaring that Mark Webber “can’t maintain form throughout an entire F1 season” and that he had “a little trouble” handling pressure! Webber hit back promptly stating that he knew he wasn’t part “of Marko’s agenda”! Vettel’s recent pronouncements about Webber not deserving to win at Malaysia has further fuelled the already volatile situation within the team.

Webber’s rivalry with fellow driver and world champion Sebastian Vettel, dating back to 2010, has been well documented and analysed will have a major bearing on his fortunes this season. The public spat between the two after Sepang and his criticism of the team principals with regard to providing the German special favours and “protection”, has resulted in the Red Bull Racing team management withdrawing all team orders for future races – at least in the early part of the season. Multi-21, the term that trended on Twitter, is history. While this does reflect on the fact that Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have lost all control over their battling drivers, it does leave Webber freer than in previous seasons to assert himself. But, on the other hand, that could be a dangerous proposition in situations where they might be fighting for a win during any of the impending 17 races! Tremendously exciting for the fans but a sure-fire recipe for disaster for RBR!

Mark Webber - Queanbeyan 2

Mark Webber – Queanbeyan 2 (Photo credit: Kincuri)

To many of us die-hard Formula 1 fans, Webber continues to remain an enigma wrapped in a paradox. He can be as smooth and as explosive as any of the great F1 drivers over the years, and yet, despite having a wonderfully engineered championship-winning car, the results have belied his awesome talent. It must be acknowledged that he has had his fair share of terrible luck as well – simply hark back to the races in Abu Dhabi in 2012 and the one at Austin, Texas. In the first, he got caught in the middle of a chaotic pile-up and had to retire, and in the second, suffered an alternator failure forcing him to beach his RB8 in the early laps. More recently, at Melbourne, he had another electronics failure which compromised his start and pushed him to the middle of the grid.

It is now a foregone conclusion that 2013 will probably be the last season that Mark Webber drives for the Austrian outfit. Simply from that perspective, he has nothing to lose and that elusive title to gain in the bargain. While Vettel has struggled with tyre-wear and more recently at Shanghai, excessive vibrations in his car, Webber has a machine that seems to be a lot more stable and the fastest on the grid over a single lap. Another indication of the Aussie’s grit and determination to establish his legacy at RBR was seen at Shanghai’s second practice where he consistently hit the top of the time-sheets even as his champion team-mate struggled. The Shanghai Grand Prix will provide an excellent indicator of how the Vettel-Webber saga will play out for the rest of the season.

6. Felipe Massa, Ferrari (Brazil): 2012 Season – Wins 0; Podiums 2; Points 122

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 22; Points

Felipe Massa Ferrari single-seater during Bahr...

Felipe Massa Ferrari single-seater during Bahrain 2010 GP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a year ago, if anyone had predicted that Felipe Massa would be a title contender, he/she would have been laughed out-of-town. Worse, the person might have lost his right to earn a livelihood in the sports writing business. How things change!

The diminutive Brazilian has turned the form book on its head and if the last season and the early part of 2013 have been any indicator, he is well on his way to getting back to his best.

After his horrific accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 when a spring from another car broke loose and pierced his helmet, cracked his skull and got lodged above his right eye, Massa was never the force that he was before that unfortunate incident. Medical experts have stated that the skull injury impacted his brain in a way that it hampered his concentration and coördination levels in a high-performance race car. There was also the psychological aspect that probably crept into his mental make-up wherein he expected the worst every time that he stepped on the track. It made him look tentative and wary – definitely not categorized as virtues for a Formula 1 race driver!

It is credit to Ferrari that they waited for him to recover from the major surgery and reinstate him in the team albeit as the Number Two driver alongside former world champion Fernando Alonso. While race fans and pundits were extremely relieved with his return to the fold, the results were not forthcoming. Massa had to endure the ignominy of being the first driver ever in the history of Ferrari to not earn a podium in an entire season, in 2011. At the start of the 2012 Season, speculation was rife that Massa would eventually have to go and would be replaced by a younger, higher-performing driver. Sergio Perez, the Mexican who impressed one and all with the resurgent Sauber team (and part of Ferrari’s young drivers program) was touted to be at the top of list to take Massa’s place.

This air of uncertainty played havoc with Massa’s performance in 2012. In 14 Grand Prix starts, he managed only 51 points with 4th pace finishes in Silverstone, England and Monza, Italy being his only notable results. With Massa in the doldrums, the writing was on the wall and everyone believed that a team such as Ferrari would or could not continue to persist with such a poor-performing driver in its ranks. That was when the Maranello giant confounded the Formula 1 racing world by extending Massa’s contract by another year. The results were immediate and incredible! It was as if Massa had rediscovered his groove.

A happier Massa and now almost fully recovered from his debilitating head injury was back to his best. The driver that the racing world admired and respected was back with a bang, driving with the same grace, control and panache of his yeomen years. Massa exploded to a 2nd place podium finish in Japan and then placed P4, P6, P7 and again P4 in the next four races at Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and the U.S. respectively. He ended the season in style at his home race in São Paulo with a 3rd place podium. In all, he had racked up 71 points thereby reaffirming his place among the top 10 F1 drivers in the world.

It has been rumoured and reported that Ferrari is concerned about the impact of Massa’s resurgence on the team’s fortunes this season because even though he is the designated Number Two driver, he is showing signs of dominating his more illustrious counterpart – Fernando Alonso. Proof is available in his performances over the last five races (three last season and two this year) wherein he has out-qualified Alonso. He completed the race at Sepang even as the Spaniard crashed out in lap 2 thereby narrowing the gap between the two further. And only today, Massa topped the time sheets at Shanghai in the second practice.

Massa being back to the best is great news for race fans the world over. However, while it increases the headache of the Ferrari team bosses, it is sure to spice up Season 2013’s championship stakes.

Part II: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

Featured are the two drivers – Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes – who have the best chance to turn the tables on the top seeds in the current season.

That Kimi Raikkonen is a cult figure in the Formula 1 Grand Prix firmament and has a legion of fervent, and passionate fans as is evident from this picture. A view of the “Kimi Grandstand” before the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012.

That Kimi Raikkonen is a cult figure in the Formula 1 Grand Prix firmament and has a legion of fervent and passionate fans as is evident from this picture. A view of the “Kimi Grandstand” before the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012.

3. Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus (Finland): 2012 Season – Wins 1; Podiums 7; Points 207

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 0; Points 31

 When Kimi Raikkonen announced his return to the Formula 1 fold in 2012 after a three-year hiatus, there was a sense of euphoria among thousands of his loyal fans. And yet, there were some apprehensions as well. The question on most peoples’ lips was whether he would be the same force that he was when he walked away from it all after bagging one WDC title with Ferrari in 2007 and two runners-up finishes in 2003 and 2005 with McLaren respectively. Would he be competitive enough after such a long sabbatical especially considering that he was mainly rally driving for the Citroen Junior Racing Team, dabbling in a bit of NASCAR in the U.S. before ending up racing trucks in the Camping World Truck series!

But as the cliché goes, you can take a man out of racing, but you can’t take racing out of him! Raikkonen’s comeback was made possible before the 2012 Season when Lotus-Renault (the re-branded race management of Team Renault),  got him back into the fold. The man himself probably missed the adrenaline rush of being in the fastest cars in the world and so might have even settled for a lesser pay packet to get back into the F1 Grand Prix Circus (although he would be loath to admit it). You can check out the Iceman’s second coming by Lotus F1 at http://www.kimiraikkonen.com. It is truly a must for all Kimi die-hard fans!

And boy! What a phenomenal return it has been! Even after three years away from the mainstream, Raikkonen simply waded back into the frenetic, high-octane world of Formula 1 and glided his way to one win and seven podium finishes and a staggering 207 points to end the season on P3. The feat is categorised as “staggering” only because the car at Raikkonen’s disposal – the Lotus E20 – was way behind in race pace in comparison to the Red Bulls, McLarens and even the Mercedes’. And yet, he managed to beat two former world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button, quite comfortably.

The season’s crowning glory came in Abu Dhabi when he held off a marauding Fernando Alonso to win his first race in 2012. It is a testimony to Raikkonen’s sheer driving ability, acute spatial awareness and incredible race control that he managed to score points in that car in each race of the season bar one – at Shanghai, China where he finished at P14. Every other race was within the top 10 and there were 19 of them in all!

What was even more creditable was that he was the only driver to complete all 20 races without a single accident or mechanical failures. It is another matter though that his car had begun to sound like a hollow, damaged drum by the time he hit the brand new circuit in Austin, Texas. Raikkonen had literally worked his car and all the available engines for the season, into the ground! Contrast this performance of his younger team-mate Romain Grosjean’s results for the season wherein he had all of seven retirements through crashes and mechanical glitches!

So what does Kimi Raikkonen need to do this season in order to win the World Drivers Championship? Well, he has started terrifically by winning the Australian Grand Prix and then managing to somehow stay in the points (7th position for 6 points) in the Sepang Grand Prix, his qualifying penalty of three grid positions notwithstanding. A total of 31 points means that he is just 9 points adrift of Sebastian Vettel and already second in the driver’s points table. With the first win out-of-the-way, Raikkonen needs at least a couple more P1 finishes to throw in the gauntlet at Vettel and Alonso. And it is possible this season.

The Lotus-Renault E21 is showing fantastic pace in the dry, even faster than the Red Bulls or the Ferraris. Second, even as the likes of Vettel, Webber and most of the drivers are going to town criticising the rapid degradation of the new Pirelli tyres, Raikkonen has shown the way in their careful preservation and management. On the James Allen on F1 website (the Bible for us F1 fans), Lotus’ Technical Director, James Allison said that unlike what people believe about Raikkonen being a very fast driver; it is his patience over tens of laps that characterise his current version as an F1 racer.

To amplify the point, he revealed that when Kimi was behind the two race leaders at Sepang, he deliberately maintained a one second distance behind them, so that he had the benefit of clean air around him, which in turn, prevented his car’s tyres from overheating.

Allison has said in a podcast that Kimi lost traction on the wheels only twice during the entire race at Melbourne. And that even in the final laps (where he set the fastest lap time of the race), his tyres were only half worn! So much so for tyre degradation!

Given dry conditions, Raikkonen is going to dominate in the season that is unfolding even if the car he has does not have great pace in qualifying. Lotus is expecting a lot more updates in the days and months to come, so that would be one area that they will address specifically. But qualifying pace or not, it takes Raikkonen to spot one gap in the field at the start and he has the talent to simply blow his way into a top three slot. From there on, he is normally unbeatable only because the level of control he exercises is masterful.

Standing ovation for Raikkonen after his win at bu Dhabi in 2012.

Standing ovation for Raikkonen after his win at Abu Dhabi in 2012.

Raikkonen in his second coming is a lot cannier and a more measured. As a bottom line, all this is great news for true-blue racing fans because we can expect to be treated to some masterful driving on the most grueling and competitive race tracks in the world.

4. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes (Great Britain): 2012 Season – Wins 4; Podiums 7; Points 190

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 25

On his day, there is no better sight than Lewis Hamilton blazing his way like a silver arrow at the front of the grid. Such is his pace and control that he is capable of opening up significant leads in a matter of mere seconds. It is often said that the 27-year-old Englishman knows only one gear to drive in – overdrive! He possesses incredible control but his blazing, blasting style of driving can end in heartbreak and that too in a few crucial races when points in the bag matter the most.

Easily one of the fastest drivers in the world, Hamilton has also been plagued with a mixture of bad luck and myriad mechanical problems with his McLaren MP4-27. Season 2012 could have seen Hamilton challenging the eventual winner and leaders and even dominating the standings had it not been for five crippling retirements.

In Germany, (Hamilton’s 100th Grand Prix start) he had a punctured tyre in Lap 3; in Belgium Romain Grosjean made contact forcing him to plough into Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez thereby ending the race for all four drivers; his gearbox failed at Singapore, followed by another mechanical failure at Abu Dhabi when he was comfortably in the lead, and finally in Sao Paulo, Nico Hulkenberg made contact with Hamilton forcing the two-time world champion to retire from P2 in his very last race for Team McLaren!

The sum total of all the mishaps suffered by Hamilton meant that he lost at the very least between 50 and 75 points which had a significant impact on the final standings in Season 2012. Had Hamilton completed all races like say Kimi Raikkonen, he would have finished third overall and could have even challenged Alonso for second. Even then his stats for the season were extremely impressive with over 75% of his total points (190) coming from wins and podiums! In a car that gave both McLaren drivers a lot of grief during the year, those are remarkable figures.

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton (Photo credit: Dwonderwall)

As the season drove to a close, controversy erupted when Hamilton was said to be unhappy at McLaren owing to contractual differences with the team principals (McLaren apparently refused to hike his salary for the 2013 Season), Hamilton finally joined Mercedes even after he was rumoured to have approached Bernie Ecclestone for getting him a seat at Red Bull Racing. This was subsequently vehemently denied by Hamilton but true to form, he was yet again at the centre of an unnecessary controversy.

Analysts wondered whether all this would have an impact on his performance in the season. If the first two races of the season have been any indication, Hamilton is back to doing what he does best – making the most of a machine that cannot as yet be categorised as really quick. He finished 5th at Melbourne and 3rd at Sepang netting him a total of 25 points so far (adrift by 15 points from the leader Sebastian Vettel). But there are encouraging signs that Mercedes will be a serious top 3 contender in 2013 with both Hamilton and Rosberg showing excellent form. The two have pushed Mercedes within 3 points of the second place held jointly by Lotus and Ferrari in the Constructors Standings.

A lot of Hamilton’s assault on Vettel’s stranglehold atop the F1 food chain will depend on his ability to curb his naturally aggressive instincts. Much like Alonso and Raikkonen, he will have to nurse, cajole and coax his car into providing the best possible performance within its limitations and chalking up points consistently over 20 races. He has started well and that is half the job done because the worst fate that can befall a race driver is to have mechanical problems or accidents early in the season. It tends to play with their psyche in a negative way and adds way too much pressure when the time comes to playing catch-up.

If you race fans have noticed, this season Hamilton seems to be taking it a whole lot slower and easier. He seems calmer and has been pacing his sessions a lot more sensibly. Gone is that instinct that pathologically drives him to blitz the time-sheets, be it in the practice sessions, qualifying or then in the race. Instead, he is now driving well within himself and selecting his moment to unleash the beast for a few flying laps when it matters, say in qualifying. He was also raring to have a go at Vettel and Webber towards the end of the race at Sepang but a curt instruction from Ross Brawn from the Mercedes telemetry station and his own new-found sense of maturity, saw him conserve fuel and his tyres and safely bring home the car in third place.

Hamilton’s machine may not possess the heavy artillery required to destroy the Red Bulls’ charge at the top of the grid. But there is no way that he can be written off as a title contender especially considering the driver problems being faced at the Austrian team garage and the terribly designed, uncompetitive car of his former team, McLaren. If he manages to keep his head as he did at Malaysia, Hamilton could well be one of the top three drivers vying for the title in 2013.

Part I: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

Just two races into the season and the champions, Red Bull Racing are in complete disarray on both management and driver fronts; there’s an unsaid but palpable unease over at the Mercedes garage, and the second driver at Ferrari seems to driving the pants off his more illustrious counterpart. That’s the top six of the seven contenders right there for you! Add the mercurial Finn from Lotus to the mix and you have a most intriguing of Formula 1 season at hand. 

The following is a three-part review of the seasons profiling two contenders each. Once we get through that we’ll look at the final `Predictions Table’ for both the Driver and Constructors championships.

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A live shot of Sebastian Vettel (P24) taken from an Apple iPhone at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

1. Sebastian Vettel, RBR (Germany): 2012 Season – Wins 5; Podiums 11; Points 281

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 2; Points 40

Despite a podium at Melbourne and a win at Sepang, the 3-time World Drivers Champion is an unhappy camper these days. A furious team-mate, more-than-just-miffed bosses, and the loss of a large dollop of goodwill around the paddock are just some of the fallouts of Vettel “disregarding team orders” and passing team mate Mark Webber after a fairly intense bullfight in the dying laps at Sepang. The question on every fan’s mind, as a result, is whether this will have a bearing on the German’s charge towards the fourth World Driver’s Title in 2013.

The answer is simple: Of course it will! Fact is that however much the team principals try to bring about an amicable rapprochement between their warring drivers, the seeds of mistrust have been sown far too deep to be quickly ripped out – starting with their infamous Turkey-shoot in 2010, carrying on to Silverstone in 2011 and culminating in the race-start stampede at Sao Paulo in 2012.

Fact also is that Vettel will be driving this season with a bull’s eye painted on his diffuser. Not only will Webber, now in his last season with Red Bull, want to reassert his importance in the team, he faces the strongest possible competition from the likes of Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Felippe Massa who are all showing ominous form in their 2013 race packages. Given Vettel’s current state of mind; his possible apprehension with team orders on the one hand and his burning desire to remain world champion on the other, it doesn’t take an F1 expert to predict that this year is going to be one intensely tumultuous roller coaster ride for him.

So what is the silver-lining for the 25-year old? Vettel polarises opinion among pundits and fans. There are those that love him and those that love to hate him. But that is only because there are, clearly, two distinct but diametrically different Vettels that everyone is confronted with in a race season.

The first one is almost childish, petty, selfish and arrogant to the point of considering himself the anointed one, above the team or team-mate. This is the Vettel one usually gets to see when he has pole and then does everything in his power to keep it that way, or then is stuck in midfield and would scrap, scratch, bite and claw his way to the front of the grid. No threat is brooked and he is not averse to railroading his team-mate if required in order to maintain his dominance and supremacy. This is the bully, the heavyweight champion who believes in winning at any cost – even if it meant chewing off the ear of an opponent! Yet, no one can deny his skill and concentration levels when it comes to controlling a race from the front. And more often than not, he wins.

The other Vettel is the one that turns up every now and then at an Abu Dhabi Circuit or the one at São Paulo at the end of the season – gallant, fearless, determined and simply brilliant. In this avatar, Vettel is irresistible and a sheer joy to watch. At Abu Dhabi, he qualified at P3, but was pushed down to P24 for the race owing to his car showing insufficient fuel after qualifying. It would have been a body blow to any driver on that grid. Undeterred, Vettel pushed gallantly from the back of the grid, blowing past the back-markers to reach a respectable P12. That’s when the second tragedy struck. A damaged front wing forced him to pit yet again and he restarted at P18. What followed was yet again an exhibition of the highest quality of pure racing. In a spectacular display, the defending world champion cleared the field notch-by-notch, to end up at P3. It was a race wherein that result has to be categorised as nothing short of miraculous.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was yet another reflection of the true champion qualities that Sebastian Vettel possesses. A shunt with Bruno Senna of Williams in the very first lap of this crucial championship race turned Vettel a full 180 degrees – his car’s nose pointing the wrong way – and resultantly relegating him to the end of the field. But Vettel was not one to give up at this stage and promptly turned things around. Sound pit strategies and a steady race pace and amazing control in the rain, saw Vettel come in at P6 and netting him the required number of points to stay at the top of the driver’s standings.

That then is the story of the two Sebastians. A lot of his fortunes in 2013 will rest on which of them turns up on each of the race days over the next eight months. In just two starts this season, he has shown both personalities in equal measure, which does not auger well for him or the team – the race wins at Sepang notwithstanding.

2. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari (Spain): 2012 Season – Wins 3; Podiums 10; Points 278

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 18

Fernando Alonso started season 2013 with the same kind of tenacity and consistency that saw him come within a handful of points of the 2012 World Driver’s Championship. His performance at Melbourne was outstanding even as he chased down a dominant Kimi Raikkonen in the last few minutes and laps of that Grand Prix.

Last season, Alonso was severely handicapped by a terribly designed car. The Ferrari F2012 was essentially a jalopy on wheels that did not stand a chance to win a single race had it been in the hands of a lesser driver. But under Alonso, what started out as a snorting, misbehaving pony was gradually cajoled, coaxed, tuned and pushed until it meta morphed into a thoroughbred and began to purr, glide and then run like the wind on the race track by the end of the season.

It was virtuoso stuff and Alonso produced some spectacular results in 2012 – 3 wins and 10 podiums with that lame duck of a chariot! The thought on every racing fan’s mind was, “Give this man a decent car, and just imagine what he might be capable of!” No question that everyone expected him to easily replicate his Renault heroics of 2007 and 2008, but on a much, much more grandiose and dominant scale considering he was driving for Ferrari now.

On the face of it, all prayers were answered at the start of testing at Barcelona in February 2013 after Ferrari took the wraps off the spanking new Ferrari F138. Pre-season testing in Spain proved that the latest Ferrari package was vastly improved, better-looking and much faster than its 2012 sibling. The verdict among race fans and analysts was almost unanimous in that Alonso had his first solid opportunity since 2008 to wrest the WDC. And if Australia was an indicator, Alonso was well and truly on his way to achieving that goal.

But things and matters still aren’t all that rosy for the 32-year-old Spaniard. Contrary to expectations, the sheer race pace of Alonso’s Ferrari F138 is still up for question. Then there is the little matter of his team-mate, Felipe Massa, not only out qualifying him in the two concluded Grand Pris but looking distinctly more threatening in the races. At the start of the season, it is Massa who seems more likely to actually win a race than Alonso. But that perception may have been exaggerated by Alonso’s crashing out in the very second lap of the Sepang Grand Prix in Malaysia. With the requisite updates on the way and the car being continually tweaked and tuned, it shouldn’t be long before Alonso comes into his own and even begins to dominate the front of the grid.

So what does Alonso require to do in order to beat Vettel to the post this season? For starters, he can’t afford another DNF. Given the minuscule difference in points between the top two, Alonso has probably already reached the maximum limit in terms of races he can afford outside of the points table. He had only two of that last season and so will need to eschew bravado and risk of the type he took in Malaysia in order to stay in contention for the rest of the season. Two, and for this he will need all the help from his race engineers and pit crew – is to somehow get ahead of Vettel early in the season and open up a substantial points gap between him and the German. Easier said than done, but we all know how desperate Vettel can get when he is a follower and not the leader! Also, leading the table could have a liberating effect on Alonso freeing him from the pressure and tension that he was under throughout the two previous seasons.

Alonso has all the tools and weapons in his armoury to dismantle the German juggernaut and hold off challenges from the likes of Lotus, Mercedes and McLaren. This season he will need a little more luck than has been bestowed upon him of late. Couple that with his remarkable consistency and what was a struggle in the last season could end up being a canter to the top in 2013.

Next Edition: Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes

Somewhere not too far away in the Formula 1 Galaxy of Super Stars

If the first two races of the 2013 Formula 1 gives a whole new meaning to the age-old cliché – “from the sublime to the ridiculous!” Team mates who are keener on taking each other out rather than their competition, mind-boggling team orders, and pit stops scenarios that seemed like they were straight out of Chaplin’s “The Circus”!

An wholly irreverent look at what all that wrought!

n the 46th lap when Button is coming 6th after much attrition in the midfield. Alonso, meanwhile, has sneaked his way to P3:

Team to Button: Okay Jensen, end of this lap, box, box, BOOOXXXXX!

Button (enters pit lane at 100 kmph and slams the brakes): Er…there’s that Mercedes parked in the bloody BOOOOXXXX! What do you want me to do?!!!!

Team: Get out, get out get OUUUUUTTTT!!!!

Button leaves the pits with his burn suit in a wad and promptly loses five grid places and re-joins at 10th. (His Pirelli super duper soft tyres now resemble creamy scrambled eggs laced with squid ink.)

Button: This is the PITS! I thought I’ll never see the back of the little twit again!

Hamilton (meanwhile): uh oh…AGAIN?!!

Lewis drives out and enters the Mercedes pit bay, loses 40 seconds in the process and rejoins the race just as Nico Rosberg, a lap ahead, is belting down the straight towards the apex of the pit lane, at 318 kmph.

Nico (to himself): Not this time! Oh no way baby!

Rosberg ploughs the car into the emerging Hamilton. Both cars, true to the letter and spirit of the Grand Prix sponsors, are “Totalled” – to Infiniti. Right outside the pit exit. Yellow flags are out and the safety car is summoned for leading the funeral procession of a race.   

Button radio: I need to come in…I can’t keep normal pace behind the safety car and others because the tyres are totally blown. And Sergio is just behind me…

Button can no longer hold it driving as he is on steel wheels with some molten rubber stuck to them and with Perez in serious danger of being incinerated by the flying embers and sparks, brings the car to an abrupt halt. Perez slams into the stationery McLaren. His front wing smashed and the new pull-rod suspension twisted into a metal sculpture of the geometric abstractionism genre.      

Commentary: This is indeed the first time ever in the history of the F1 that we have seen a shunt of this kind during a safety car deployment! What a race! What an incredible race!!!!

After the restart some 8 to 10 laps later, the Bulls are on a rampage, leading the field, followed by the Ferraris.

Cristian Horner: Okay, okay Mark, you’re 0.285 seconds clear of Seb. Multi-21 and preserve the tyres. Preserve the tyres!

Webber (to himself): Yeah SURE! How stupid do you think I am mate? Not this time. I’m cranking it all up and let’s see what the little dipstick can do this time around!

Webber bungs up engine, gear ratios and revs to the max.

Horner: Okay Seb, multi-21 NOW and preserve the tyres…THE TYRES! Mark is 0.285 seconds clear so don’t do anything silly…er…PLEEEEAAASE?

Vettel (to himself): Team orders are for dummkopfs and he will do it again so why bother! Gotta“f****&&g win. With this championship in the bag, I got only 3 to go…so screw it!

Vettel bungs up engine, gear ratios and revs to the max.

After a few laps of wheel-to-wheel racing of the kind witnessed only in Spartacus a few moons ago, the two decide on final jousting thrust – into each other. Horner tears some of his auburn hair while Newey bangs his negligibly populated head into the telemetry system monitor.

A massive crash ensues and Vettel ends up perched half-way up the tyre wall on the far side, while Alonso crashes into a fully turned Webber. Tiny Massa has no way to go with the pile-up of two gleaming but twisted carcasses of a dead Bull and another Prancing Horse on a six-feet wide track, and climbs into Alonso.

Massa (heard on radio comm.): Ayieeeee, carambaaaaaaa! ¿Qué pasa aquí?

After the dust and smoke clears…

Massa (to himself): What the heck…feels good to be back on top…

Safety car deployed but can’t drive through the massive pile up of carbon fibre debris, twisted metal and a fairly spiteful fire.

Race Control: Stop the race, stop the race, STOP THE RAAAACE!!!!

Commentator: The race has been stopped around 100 meters from the finish line! The cars have been asked to maintain their positions and we’ll bring you the eventual podium winners in just a minute!

The pile-up forces Psy to trot across quickly, Gangnam-style, to the rest of the stationary vehicles,  frantically waving the chequered flag.

 Raikkonen’s radio: What’s this idiot doing?????!!!! I don’t understand, I don’t understand.

Commentator 1: We’ve just got word that Kimi Raikkonen, Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez have been declared as the final podium finishers!

Commentator 1: What a race! What an incredible race!!!! THIS IS WHAT F1 IS ALL ABOUT….

Commentator 2: Yes Gary, only 12 cars completed the race and 24 laps were lost due to the safety car. But yeah, whatta race this was. Can’t wait for the next one and bet the fans can’t too!!!!!