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Archive for September, 2008

Formula 1’s first night race in Singapore has been a massive success. In a season of great Grands Prix, this was another classic race. Once again it turned on a safety car and showed the importance of race strategy in determining the outcome. And as far as the championship is concerned it showed that the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win the title.

Ferrari had the pace to get a 1-2 finish here and before Nelson Piquet’s accident triggered a safety car on lap 16, it looked very much as though Kimi Raikkonen would jump Lewis Hamilton in the pit stop and back his team mate Massa up to the finish. The Ferrari was half a second a lap faster than the McLaren in the opening stint and Lewis was looking down the barrel of a whooping from Ferrari. Without the pit stop foul-up for Massa, Lewis would have left here three points behind the Brazilian with three races to go.

But the safety car and the subsequent dash for the pits changed everything. It wrecked Kubica’s race because he had to pit for fuel when the pit lane was closed and then when Massa and Hamilton pitted together, in their haste to get Massa out ahead, they released him with the fuel hose still attached. [ ... ]

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We’ve had a great day here in Singapore, it’s stayed dry and the cars did loads of laps. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to something new, even when it as completely different as this is.

It’s clear that the track is very challenging and there is little margin for error. It will be a very tough race because it’s 61 laps and it’s a long lap at 1m 45 secs so you are looking at an hour and three quarters. It will be very physical because of all the corners and the humidity, so I’d expect some shunts. There are two or three corners where it is very easy to make a mistake and hit the wall. It’s very bumpy and some cars are really struggling with that, especially Honda and Toyota. The McLaren and Ferrari look very stable over the bumps and are the fastest cars out there, as you’d expect. Although Alonso topped the times in practice two it was another low fuel special, but nevertheless he looks in good shape for the weekend and should be best of the rest behind the top three teams. In the battle for P4 in the constructors championship it looks like Renault will outscore Toyota this weekend.

It’s looking like a tough track on brakes, especially if you are carrying a heavy fuel load so some teams may not have the option of a one stop strategy. Red Bull and Toro Rosso both looked as though the brakes were getting pretty hot.

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We’ve had our first session here in Singapore and there was plenty of spectacular action and a few near misses out on the track as the drivers get used to it. At the end, Hamilton very nearly hit Fisichella who had spun in one of the blind corners and was across the track. Lewis was fastest, by a few hundredths from Massa and Raikkonen. Kovalainen had a huge moment at the final corner, as did Vettel. Luckily for bthe there is plenty of run off area there.

Mark Webber hit the wall on the outside of the corner which passes under the grandstands early on, so Red Bull lost a lot of set up time, which is not ideal on a new track.

It’s very dusty out there, as you’d expect, but also very bumpy and the cars look very lively out there. They move around a lot, buck and jump over the bumps and generally look as though they are on the edge. Perhaps the artificial lights exacerbate that too. Lewis describes it as a ‘very busy lap’ and there are plenty of traps lying in wait for drivers if they lose concentration for a split second. Even if we don’t get much overtaking I think we will have an eventful race on Sunday with a high chance of a safety car because someone will go into the wall at some point.

The controversial chicane where the oversized Tic Tacs had to be removed, is not in fact a chicane, the cars go straight through it and then turn left. It’s a road narrowing device to ensure that the cars will be in single file for the Anderson bridge. The problem with this is that in the race it will spread the field out massively, so overtaking will be made more difficult and it will mean that qualifying at the front is absolutely critical, because if you are running around in fifth place in the opening laps, as Raikkonen has s few times lately, you will be 20 seconds behind the leader by the time of the first pit stops and totally out of it.

Last night we were all woken up by what sounded like a giant bomb going off. It was a thunderstorm, which lasted a few hours, with torrential rain. If that happened on Sunday there is no way they could start the race.

The track is not as bright as I’d expected it to be and the cars are not as illuminated as you’ll be expecting when you see them on TV. It’s 8-45pm here now and I’m off for lunch…weird.

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As this is such a new event and there is so much interest, I thought I would pen an occasional blog over the course of the weekend with extra information and behind the scenes insight.

It’s Thursday night and everyone is still at the track, because it’s lunchtime in Europe and most people in F1 are staying on European time. It’s a bit weird going about your daily business at night, but for anyone who has done Le Mans or journalists who have covered night time football matches, it’s fairly normal. My plan is to get to the track around 3pm local time each day and leave around 2am. The problem then is that your body is telling you that it is dinner time, but your watch is saying ‘go to bed’. Some of our TV crew were in the hotel bar last night at 2am (which is fairly normal) and David Coulthard was apparently there, ordering his dinner, as it was the only place still open! He was trying to stay up until 4am. Apparently it is critical that the drivers eat their meals at the right time so that their energy levels are correct at the times that matter.

I’ve been here since this morning and the whole set up here is fantastic. The people are so enthusiastic and the work they have done is impressive. The people who built the track are the same ones who did Melbourne and they know what they are doing.

As I write, the safety car is doing laps, so the driver can learn the track and also to give the TV cameras a chance to follow him and make an adjustments they might need to positions and so on. It looks great at night on TV, even though to the naked eye the track is not as brightly illuminated as I thought it might be. I had heard it would be three times as bright as a football stadium, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s bright enough and there are no shadows to speak of. As part of the test they have switched off the lights in one of the fast corners and there is enough ambient light around for the drivers to see where they are going. I’m sure that if we had a total failure of all the generators powering the lights, there would not be an accident. The drivers would be able to slow down without hitting each other or anything else.

I’m very excited about this event. It will move F1 on a great deal. It’s exactly the kind of innovation the sport needs and it brings it into the 21st century. It will make going to places like the Nurburgring seem very dull and old fashioned!

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The Financial Times recently asked me to narrate a multimedia presentation on their website offering an insight into the Formula One experience. It was a unique opportunity to share some of my more personal impressions of this wonderful, passionate environment. Click here to view it

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Sebastien Vettel’s win in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza was a fairytale for Toro Rosso, but something of a headache for their competitors. Toro Rosso is a customer team, probably the purest example of the breed. They get a car from Red Bull Technologies, which is essentially the same as the Red Bull, except for the Ferrari engine and its installation equipment.

Their win is not good news  for the teams who manufacture their own car, like Williams and there have been some murmurs that the old battles may be opened up again in light of Vettel’s win. It’s one thing to score four or five points here and there, quite another to be winning races and have 27 points on the board! Sponsors ask awkward questions like, “Why can’t we do that?” and conspiracy theorists have a field day, because the team is officially up for sale. If you were an Abu Dhabi squillionaire thinking about buying Toro Rosso, wouldn’t a nice win and a strong position in the constructors table be just the thing to make you take the plunge..?

The problem is that the agreement on customer cars states that the team has to build its own car within three years. Toro Rosso would love to change that agreement, because it’s so much more attractive to a buyer if you don’t have to make your own car. That was also David Richard’s model. But it doesn’t work with the way F1 is and unless you go to an almost spec chassis formula, it never will.

The point here once again is that F1 needs to tell it’s story better – as was also illustrated by the Hamilton penalty saga in Spa. This is another example. Sometimes the people running the show forget what it is about the sport that the man in the street wants to see and believe. Look at it simply – Vettel’s win rejuvenates the sport because it shows it’s possible for an independent team to win. It probably won’t happen again for a few years, if ever.

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Sebastien Vettel wins the Italian Grand Prix at historic Monza, in an Italian car, which isn’t a Ferrari and he does so from pole position, driving away from a McLaren. He’s the youngest ever winner by a year and everyone in F1 is happy for him.

The story will go down in history as something very special. It is like James Hunt winning at Zandvoort for the tiny Hesketh team. The Toro Rosso team has Minardi DNA still running through its veins. Most of the guys who toiled for Paul Stoddard and Giancarlo Minardi are still there among the 168 employees. They have a workforce which is less than 20% of the size of the top teams and one of the smallest budgets in the field.

But it shows that it is possible for an independent team to win and the important point is that Vettel and Toro Rosso did all of this on merit. He didn’t win because leading cars retired in front of him. He won because he did a better job than anyone else in qualifying and then rode his luck in the race, making all the right moves at the right time and driving with faultless precision.

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An extraordinary Grand Prix with one of the most exciting finishes ever has been given a different complexion by the stewards’ decision to penalise Lewis Hamilton for taking an advantage from cutting a chicane.

There is not doubt that this is a very big call by the stewards and a lot of unbiased observers among the media and the public will find it hard to understand. It takes a lot to unpick the results of a Grand Prix, especially one which would otherwise probably be long remembered as a classic and a great advert for the sport.

I’ve watched the incident many times now and Hamilton cuts the chicane because he was pushed out wide, quite fairly by Kimi, his trajectory makes it hard for him to follow Raikkonen around the corner and, faced with going on the grass, he chose instead to cut the chicane. It’s a deliberate act on his part, amazing speed of thought, but he clearly chooses the least worst option. He is therefore in front coming out of the chicane, but crucially he is on a line he would not have been on had he taken the chicane normally.

Although he clearly hands back the lead to Kimi as they cross the line and the timing sheets show you that Kimi clearly crossed the line first, he is on him immediately afterwards. And this is the nub of the steward’s argument. Kimi’s car does get fully in front of Hamilton’s, his speed across the start line was 212km/h, while Lewis was at 206km/h, but Hamilton immediately regains the momentum. Kimi then does a kind of double block on him before Lewis sticks his car up the inside into La Source.

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New This Week

Stefano Domenicali, Robert Kubica and Vijay Mallya

Check out all the new features uploaded this week, which include an in-depth profile of Ferrari’s new boss, Stefano Domenicali, I get to see what’s cooking with Robert Kubica and we test our mathematics skills with the paddock’s top strategists.

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Actually it was a lot less damp than the forecasts said it would be, which casts serious doubt over the forecast for the rest of the weekend. Currently it says that it will be nice on Sunday and cloudy but dry for qualifying. If that turns out to be the case, then it’s looking pretty good for Ferrari. Their car works very well on tracks with long straights and fast corners and this weekend looks like being no exception. The interesting bit will be whether Raikkonen, who has won here three times, can use his undoubted ability around this place to relaunch his season and his career, or whether Massa will out him in the shade again.

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