As always I watched Friday practice and pretty much all the commentators could talk about on NBC was Red Bull and team orders. Frankly, I'm kinda over it and was hoping that after three weeks the talk would die down. But there's, "This means Christian Horner has lost control of the team," "The gloves are off between Webber and Vettel now!" "Will Webber leave the team? But WHERE would he go?"
Then there were the two infamous Vettel clips. The first one where he feigns ignorance, he was confused what the team was asking. He didn't understand "Multi 21." He was sorry, he won't do it again. But then he backpedaled, still claiming he didn't understand. But if he had, he would have thought about, and done it anyway. Because "Mark doesn't deserve that." Damn son, the gloves ARE off. There can't be any amicability between the two of them anymore.
All I want to say about this before moving on is that, 1. I'm glad Vettel owned up and said he would do it again, even if he didn't go so far as to say he already had thought about Multi 21 in Malaysia and made up his mind. 2. This can't really be good for the team. Teammate rivalry is great, but it can go too far. If one feels unfairly treated, that is not good. Even worse, if one expects certain treatment from the team but doesn't get it, that can be even more destructive. See Alonso and Hamilton at McLaren in 2007. I believe their inability to get along is what opened the door for Kimi's championship.
Alright, let's talk about the race. I think it was another fascinating one. Folks are complaining that since the tires go off so quickly and dramatically, there's no more balls-out racing and therefore it's damaging the sport. I don't get this. Why is it essential for them to be going the absolute maximum speed at all times? If you're annoyed with F1 about that, I would imagine you would have stopped watching along time ago when turbos, active suspension, active aero, ground effects, suction fans, or CVTs were banned. I like that Pirelli's tires are mixing things up. We're getting way more passing than ever before, and I don't think it's due to DRS. And I reject the claim that passing is too commonplace now. It's still exciting to see and difficult to pull off. How about Ferrari's double-pass on Hamilton at the beginning of the race? Or Raikkonen's outside move on Perez?
One thing that the tire regs are starting to ruin is qualifying. I mean, wow there was a lot of dead space during qualifying this weekend. Nobody was on track for the first 10 minutes of Q1, and then there was just a quick scramble at the end of Q3 where everyone did one flying lap. It is disappointing to see cars sitting in the garage because they simply don't have enough tires. Six tires isn't enough, especially when one compound lasts FIVE laps. Use them at all in practice and you have tires that will last two or three laps in the race. Useless. Give the teams quali tires.
McLaren & Mercedes (not to be confused with McLaren-Mercedes)
The fascinating story of the year for me is that of McLaren and Mercedes, connected by Lewis Hamilton. I mentioned last time that he looks like a genius now for his move to Mercedes. That seems even more brilliant after another podium finish. But the part about this story I find really interesting is what it all says about these two teams. It was very much on display in China. I'm starting to think that part of Hamilton's move is that he has lost confidence in the team. They had arguably the fastest car last year, but blew their chances because of poor strategy, and even worse, plain old mistakes. Especially in the pits. This is not the McLaren team we all know. Frankly, that team was Ron Dennis' team. Now that he's not part of the team anymore, it's losing what made it great. There's always been talk about how meticulous and fastidious he is. In one promo clip, Button and Hamilton joked about getting a single drop of oil on the pristine McLaren Technology Centre floor, and how Ron would kill them. Well if he is like that, he wouldn't tolerate botched pit stops. He also wouldn't tolerate the lack of discpline and professionalism the pit crew seems to have now. McLaren seem to be content with 3+ second pit stops as the norm, while RBR, Merc, and Ferrari are knocking on the sub 2 second door, and regularly pulling off sub 2.5 second stops.
I think Hamilton saw this from the inside and jumped ship to a team that is being professionally run, by Ross Brawn. I think of Ross Brawn like any other good team leader or coach. He knows that the key to a successful team in any sport is fundamentals. Phil Jackson wouldn't accept Shaquille O'Neal's horrendous free throw average and made him practice it. It was smart, you could no longer foul him and expect him to miss. Brawn won't let his team slack on the fundamentals either. Get those down first, then let's go win races and championships.
That's not to say McLaren isn't entirely McLaren anymore. They're still a savvy team with lots of experience, and they demonstrated that with Button's smart run to fifth. Credit to Button too for making the strategy work.
I'll be blunt, this was a horrendous weekend for them. Not just because of Webber's woes. Let's put that aside for a second (and no, I'm no conspiracy theorist. It's crazy to think Red Bull would sabotage Webber's car for Vettel when all that really matters is winning the constructor's championship). I can't understand why they didn't have Vettel qualify in Q3, opting not to set a time and therefore start on whichever tires they wanted. I knew right away it was a mistake, and I think that played out in the race. It's also highly uncharacteristic of Red Bull and Vettel. The same guy who just last race did whatever it takes to win. Usually, it takes qualifying on pole. Or at least as high up as possible. Races won by back markers due to smart strategy are the exception, not the rule. It's a huge risk, you may get stuck behind someone who ruins your race. Alonso and Ferrari took the traditional strategy, and it paid off. Raikkonen too, although he did pull off that smart strategy win in Australia. But you'll notice they aren't relying on that exclusively.
So if that was the wrong strategy for the win, maybe they could salvage the podium. But again, they screwed it up. We can see that in Button's race. Vettel and Button were on the same strategy and stuck together most of the race, trying to save the option tires for the end. But Button came in on just the right lap to get the most out of the option tires. It worked for him, he pitted and managed to gain one more spot to finish fifth. Had Vettel come in when Button did, he would have had one more lap to catch and pass Hamilton, and judging by his pace (even though his tires were already going off, Hamilton's were LONG gone), he would have handily passed Hamilton for the podium. I was scratching my head when they left him out. Those medium tires were shot, why keep on them? I know you're dreading coming in, but you MUST. Come in now and get on those tires. They're fast, and you'll need some laps to catch and pass Hamilton. It was as if they were thinking maybe something good would happen if they stayed out. Safety Car maybe, or rain. But rain was nowhere near, and SCs rarely come out at the end of the race when everyone's spread out, and not at a open track like China. Nope, it was just the wrong qualifying strategy and wrong race strategy. After the race Will Buxton interviewed Christian Horner, and I wrote this quote down, "The damage for us was really done in the first stint." Well, yes, you got stuck. Which is exactly why you don't skip out on qualifying! They screwed themselves from the start.
Back to Webber briefly. Poor guy, he can't catch a break from his team or Lady Luck. It was quite amusing though to see his wheel pop off and continue on without him (thankfully no one hit it). Next race, they should send Mark out on just that wheel, he may do better.
He's now second in the championship with another podium under his belt. His season is looking like Alonso's last year. We think the car isn't all that fast looking at Grosjean, but if not, how is Raikkonen doing so well? Fascinating stuff, I can't wait for more from Lotus and The Iceman.
Damn, where did that pace come from? He's making Massa look bad again. I also think a performance like that disputes Schumacher's claim about modern F1: That you can't win with speed, you have to win with strategy. First, that's always been true that you need a good strategy. You can't just go out there with no plan. Your plan can't be "go fast," there has to be more to it. Like, "Go fast so that we can pull off a win with this three stopper" (Schumi, Hungary, 1998). Second, it's not true now that you can't win with speed. Alonso just owned everybody this weekend when it came down to fast, consistent pace. He is a marvel to watch.
Season So Far
Well that's all I have to say for China. The season so far is really exciting. I love seeing both the driver's and constructor's championships so close. I love seeing new teams (Merc and Lotus) occupying the podium. I love that The Iceman is back and taking care of business in his usual, "Yeah, it was OK for me," way. And oh yeah, we got another amusing radio transmission from him in China. It's becoming tradition.