Monday, August 31, 2009

No, Really -- A Win!

Woo hoo! I shouted at Raikkonen all the way around La Source that first time, and after the safety car he nearly ran over Fisichella at the top of Eau Rouge while going past.

After that, some steady driving, combined with Fisichella's tactical inability to take any real chances (lets face it, Fisichella was under orders to bring that car home in the points no excuses) solidified the win.

That said, the total absence of Brawn and McLaren cars at the sharp end of the grid, plus some bad luck for the Red Bulls also helped; Vettel demonstrated the ability to reel in the BMW, Force India, and Ferrari ahead of him; however it's questionable as to if he would have been able to do anything about any of them had he actually caught them.

Those of us who remember our history know that one race does not mean that a team has permanently fallen behind or sprung ahead. I remember the March/Layton House team struggling to qualify in Mexico, and two weeks later in France running second and third. Force India has to show that they can repeat this kind of pace before we'll decide that they have legitimately improved.

Similarly we can enjoy the improvement in BMW form, something which should go a long way towards securing the team's future as a viable enterprise. But in the absence of the championship contenders, we can't really draw any conclusions.

But for Ferrari fans, it was a good day, one we'd doubted that we would see given the lack of pace at the beginning of the season.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This is a joke, right?

Fisichella nabs first Force India pole in Belgium
Face it, you would, too. Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella did a radio double take -- "pole position?" -- as his crew informed him he had nailed top spot for Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium. He turned a lap of 1 minute, 46.308 seconds on the 4.3-mile forest course that dates to the 1920s, nearly a tenth of a second ahead of Toyota's Jarno Trulli. Hey, lookie, an all-Italian front row.
Eh? What? Weren't the Brawns and Red Bulls supposed to resume normal service here? And what about the McLarens and Ferraris that were ready to pick up the slack if either of the two front runners faltered?

This is unbelievable.

Just about the only thing from today that went as predicted is that Luca Badoer is still stuck at the back.

For some random reason I actually recorded qualifying today, and after I read the result I just had to watch it. And the Toyotas and Fisichella and the BMWs were legitimately quick today, while the usual front runners struggled for unknown reasons.

I mean -- who could predict the McLarens barely scraping into Q2 and being almost invisible in Q3?

Normally you have a feel for how things will play out in the race based on qualifying, but here I don't know. Sure, Barrichello's Brawn is well placed to run here, but it is not impossible that Raikkonnen's Ferrari will ride KERS past him either into turn 1 or on the run down to Eau Rouge. If that's the case, the Ferrari will be a threat for any step on the podium.

I'd say that of the top three qualifiers, my money is on BMW making the podium. As for the rest, the scramble around the first lap will decide much of the finishing order.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Valencia: Year Two and F1 2010

This is the second year that Formula 1 has raced at Valenica.

Last year I described the race course as a cement-walled gerbil run. The TV lines were so bad that most of the time we only got a single car in the shot, leading to the illusion that the cars were running on their own the whole time. The fact that we were more interested in pit-lane violations and fancy lights verses of a lollipop instead of actual racing speaks volumes about both the state of Formula One in general and Valencia in particular.

This year they moved the walls back, which helps a lot from the TV show perspective. Without the cars being walled in so tightly we can see more of them and you can watch cars following each other more closely than last year. However from a racing perspective it was still pretty dry.

Next year there will be no more refueling. Instead of pit-lane and fuel-load strategy, the cars will have to challenge for position, and make passes, on the track.

The problem I have with this is that as currently written, I don't believe that these regulations will lead to any improvement in the racing. If anything, the show next year stands to be even more boring than this year.


Because I don't think the technical rules will actually make passing any easier.

I had such high hopes for 2009. I was positively salivating after the Australian Grand Prix, which featured Vettel tangling with Kubica in the closing stages of the race. The event had featured closer racing for position up and down the field, too. The fact that it ended in tears for Vettel didn't do much to discourage me, and left me hoping that this would be a sign of things to come.

Yet it hasn't panned out that way. This year, as in previous years, the majority of on-track, non-contact position changes have happened on the first lap. Beyond that it is usually pit lane strategy that changes the running order.

Try running Valencia from this year without the refueling. What would have been different? Well, the McLaren cars wouldn't have had to stop; Kovalainen could have parked his car on the racing line and let Hamilton draw out an untouchable lead. Neither Barichello nor Raikkonen would have been able to move up. We would have snoozed through the procession race, and woken up to a one-two McLaren finish.

And that's the problem I have with the regulations for 2010. Yes, we'll no longer have to worry about fuel loads, as the order will be more or less set from the first lap. But since the cars can't run closely enough together to make passing a real possibility, I think in the end it will be more boring next year.

Even more so at gerbil runs like Monaco and Valencia.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Good Couple Of Races

Kimi Raikkonen has had himself a good couple of races.

On the podium both in Hungary and Valencia, he's keeping Ferrari in the thick of things. It shows that when it comes to these point-and-squirt type tracks, the KERS-equipped Ferrari is well suited. It also reaffirms that he is motivated, something which doesn't hurt in these days of driver indecision at Ferrari.

The result in Valencia is probably more legitimate than that in Hungary, as the Brawn cars obviously started their summer break a bit early. But Barrichello had the Brawn wound up properly today, and was in the perfect position to take advantage of McLaren's mis-step at the last round of pit stops. A third today is well done indeed.

That said, the issue of the reserve driver is one which has to be addressed. It is almost criminal that drivers are placed in Formula 1 cars in a race situation without any testing ahead of time. Badoer just couldn't get it together today. The other relative rookies are definitely coming from more recent competition than Badoer is, and that certainly helps.

Having one's debut at Valencia, too, makes things excessively difficult -- the nature of the circuit means that if you get one corner wrong those errors will tend to compound and get carried forward much more.

If you ask me, Micheal Schumacher probably would have done better, but I personally wouldn't have put any money on him scoring any points.

So given that a new, inexperienced driver is unlikely to contribute much to the points tally, Ferrari should have picked someone likely to grow into the organization longer term. This would be an unpopular decision in the press, but is more likely to assist the organization in a long-term way than the Badoer decision.

I hope Badoer does better at Spa, but again I'm not putting money on his chances for points. The sharp end of the grid is too tightly packed, and reliability too good, for someone to squeeze in.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Button: Man or Monkey?

F1Fanatic ranks this year's drivers, ending with Jenson Button as number one. But the telling quote is the reader-supplied quote on Button:
It’s all well and good having a good car, but Barrichello has proved that its not just about the car. Button has driven superbly this season, and completely outdone Barrichello in the same machinery. --Claire MSJ
The thing is, I still don't rate Button very highly, for the same reason that I never rated Villeneuve highly -- his success only came when he was in a car which had a huge advantage over the rest of the field.

In Villeneuve's case, my description is usually Williams built a car that a monkey could win the world championship in. And in this case, there is a compelling argument that this is precisely what happened.

When Villeneuve's career was winding down, he found himself in the BAR with Button in the opposite car. While the car flattered neither driver, neither driver particularly covered themselves in glory while driving it.

The way Button's season has suddenly appeared to sag at the seams just as everyone was warming up the Button Becomes World Championship headlines gives lie to the suggestion that while he is certainly a competent driver, he is hardly exceptional.

The excuses have been convenient -- the Brawn can't deal with the cooler temperatures which prevailed at Silverstone or Nurburgring. The KERS cars had a technological edge in Hungary. But the fact is that those same KERS cars where overwhelmed at Monaco, where the Brawn put on a clinic of domination.

Brawn walks a tightrope as a team right now, balancing the need to strike the Championship now, while the fire is hot, and building a team which will compete reasonably in the future. Given their financial state, and the almost total lack of visible sponsorship support, one would think that the short-term thinking of maximizing performance potential today would be the best thing they could do; otherwise, their performance could drop off before a big-money sponsor is committed for next year.

But all that aside, if Button is going to promote himself from the ranks of the truly adequate, he's going to have to bring something special to the second half of the season.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

BMW Getting Lesson In Economics

BMW has a problem: it wants out of Formula 1, and it wants out this year.

BMW has another problem: they have confused "replacement cost" with "resale value". In trying to find a way to transfer the ownership of the team to Peter Sauber, BMW thinks that the team is an asset that has a value, and therefore they want to be compensated for handing over ownership of that asset to another party. Under most circumstances, that would be reasonable thinking. I have something of value that you want; therefore you pay me if I am to agree to give it to you. The thing is, while the team facilities and equipment would undoubtedly cost money to replace, this doesn't really have any bearing on the actual value of the team.

It is a fundamental point of economics that an object's value is dictated by a willing buyer meeting willing seller. So if I have a Formula 1 team that would cost say $300 million to replace in terms of staff and facilities, but I can't find someone willing to pay me $300 million for it, is it actually worth $300 million?


In this case, BMW's demands for money as a part of the sale means that quite probably the sale won't go through. This is because the revised Concorde Agreement has been signed by everyone else, and to alter the agreement now would require all other signatory's consent. And as the Schumacher testing debacle shows, such unanimity is hard to come by.

The sad thing is that by insisting on a particular value for the team, BMW has effectively dropped its value to nearly zero, plus any proceeds from winding up the team by selling its components.

In this situation, everyone loses: Peter Sauber loses a team he spent so much time and effort building, F1 loses a capable participant, and BMW ends up with more mud on their face.