Belgian Grand Prix: Unpredictably Predictable

The race that has a reputation of being unpredictable was true to it’s word Sunday, but probably not in the way that we were all hoping. The championship resumed on with what could be described as a bit of an anti-climax. We’re still awaiting to hear confirmation as to who’s filling the Red Bull seat next year, and still waiting to hear where Kimi will be taking his seat. Without these announcements, we were still expecting a thrilling race, with a high chance of rain changing track conditions, and a scramble to choose the right tyre strategy. Alas, as unpredictable as ever, the entire race was dry, and took place with a noticeable lack of thrill.

The run down to the first corner was intense to watch as memories of last years pile-up came to mind. The close together pack were more cautious this time, though about three quarters of the pack locked their brakes. Hamilton and Vettel were the first to make it to La Source, followed closely by Rosberg, who had already gained a place on Webber. Hamilton had a superb start, and managed to defend his position through Eau Rouge. Although Vettel, following closely in the Mercedes slipstream, made his move down the Kemmel Straight and lead the race by the time he reached Les Combes. Vettel wasn’t challenged for the lead for the entirety of the race, and therefore won with ease. Despite a quiet qualifying from McLaren, Jensen Button was pressurising Rosberg for third. Alonso (who had qualified in ninth), had made his way up to fifth by the end of the first lap, while Kimi was cruising back in tenth.

On lap 4, Alonso made his move into fourth by taking Button using DRS on the Kemmel Straight, and pulled the same move again two laps later on Rosberg to put himself into third. While Alonso was carving his way through the front runners, his team mate was having no such luck. Massa, who was stuck in traffic towards the back of the grid, didn’t feel right with his car, fearing wing damage and a loss of KERs.

Hulkenburg initially had a good race, holding up both the Lotus’ of Kimi and Grosjean. It was initially odd that Kimi hadn’t made a move on the Sauber, though it soon became apparent that the Lotus was suffering from brake issues. With every application of the brakes, black brake dust would shoot off. Troubling signs of what was to come for Kimi. Slightly further back in the pack, Perez was trying to make a move on Grosjean, resulting in the Lotus being forced off the track. A move which saw Perez receive a drive through penalty, possibly a bit harsh of the stewards in this instance. On lap 9, Kimi did make his move on Hulkenburg, moving up into eighth.

Caterham’s Charles Pic became the first retirement of the race on lap 9 due to a reported oil leak. After the first round of pit stops, Button briefly led the race (having been yet to pit), unfortunately for the McLaren his worn tyres were easy prey for the Red Bull’s fresh ones, as he made his way through at the Blanchimont Chichane on Lap 15 to retake the lead. Raikkonen’s race was looking better (with his brake seemingly having calmed down) as he made a very tight move on di Resta at the same chichane on the same lap. Webber was on his usual fight back up the grid after a less than ideal start, showing just what will be missed about him next season has he followed Grosjean waiting for the perfect opportunity to overtake the Lotus, a moment he found coming out of Eau Rouge on lap 17 to move himself up into sixth, and then fifth when Button came into pit.

One of the most famous corners in the championship, Eau Rouge, requires a tremendous amount of skill for the drivers at the best of times let alone when you’re heading down three-a-breast. This is exactly what di Resta, Perez, and Sutil did on lap 18, looking like some kind of bizarre entrant in a three-legged race. Incredibly, all three cars emerged unscathed with Sutil leading the three. Vettel continued to extend his lead on Alonso and Hamilton as the Mercedes was visibly struggling to get the performance out of his tyres.

On lap 24 and 25 Kimi was chasing Massa, though he was losing speed throughout the lap. It looked like he was about to make his move coming into the Blanchimont Chicane, but he went straight off. Despite the team’s best efforts, Kimi’s brakes had given up forcing him to skulk back into the pits. The retirement ended his record of most consecutive points finishes. However, in true Kimi style, he soon disappeared to what can only be assumed was the bar. On the next lap, Maldonado missed the first apex coming into the Blanchimont Chichane and made contact with Sutil, pushing the Williams car straight into the path of di Resta. Once again for the unluckiest man in F1, he was immediately a retirement from the race as his left rear tyre was now sitting atop the right rear. The contact didn’t seem to harm the remaining Force India, as Sutil initially droppping back four places to twelfth, managed to work his way back into the points finishing ninth. Maldonado was not so lucky, immediately pushing him back to sixteenth after receiving a 10 second stop-go penalty.

Button, who was racing in third for a possible podium finish, came in for his final pit on lap 34 coming back out in sixth but failed to make up any grid places to finish the race in that position.  Daniel Ricciardo’s pace quickened towards the end of the race as he pushed his final pit-stop back to lap 33 while running in eighth. Coming back into the field, he made light work overtaking Hulkenburg, team mate Vergne, and Perez to finish in the points in tenth.  After initially a very difficult race, Massa steadied himself and finished seventh.

Hamilton fought hard throughout the race, coming home to finish third after, though the real drive of the day would have to go to Alonso. The Spaniard drove to absolute perfection after a poor qualifying. By the end of the first lap, he’d made up four places to fifth (most of which he managed at the tricky La Source Hairpin), and by lap 11 he was running in second where (after a brief work back from fourth following his pit stop) he finished the race in. It was a real shame that Vettel had such a lead on the rest of the field as Alonso was on such form on Sunday, I would have loved to have seen him have a go at taking Vettel. The weekend’s results pushes Red Bull 77 points clear of Mercedes, and 94 points clear of Ferrari. At this stage it looks set that Red Bull and Vettel will take out both the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships, but here’s hoping that the gap in the points closes up over the next few races.

– Alex

Qualifying Pole Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Podium Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Fastest Lap 1:50.756 Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing-Renault)

Belgian Grand Prix: Qualifying Thoughts

Round 11 of the championship resumes at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps, home of Eau Rouge, one of the favourite and most famous corners of any track. This is a high-speed circuit, where the team must make the most of the 7.004km track. The weather couldn’t make up it’s mind during all three qualifying sessions on Saturday, which made for some very interesting lap times. DRS was deactivated numerous times during the sessions as the track was too wet and slippy. The changing weather meant that every car was eager to get out and post a time before track conditions potentially got worse. Despite a wet track, qualifying went largely without incident and the drivers mostly managed to stay on track. The drivers of the day were Force India’s Paul di Resta and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Neither of the Lotus cars were fans of the wet in Q1, but not as much as Toro Rosso and the Willams teams. Both teams got their tyre strategy wrong choosing to stay out on old inters. Van der Garde was the first to go out on slicks in the final minutes of Q1 which proved to be the right decision, easily securing himself to Q2. Out after Q1 were Maldonado, Vergne, Ricciardo, Bottas, Gutierrez, and Pic. It was unfortunate for Ricciardo and Gutierrez especially, as both drivers posted fast laps too early in the session and just didn’t have the grip in the tyres when the track began to dry.

With the track continuing to dry at the, most of the drivers went out on slicks at the beginning of Q2.  Alonso’s Ferrari was surprisingly quick during the second qualifying session Hamilton made it through to Q3 by the skin of his posting a 1:49.067s. Van der Garde, who got it so right in Q1, failed to make it through to the final qualifying session. Out after Q2 were Hulkenburg, Sutil, Perez, van der Garde, Bianchi, and Chilton.

The rain returned for Q3, and every driver was eager to get back out on track with the notable exception of Paul di Resta. The Force India sat in his garage for the first few minutes of the wet session. His strategy was pure genius, the remaining nine cars in the session went out on slicks to try and post a dry time. The sneaky Scot had the rest of the pack to make a little dry line for him while he waited for everyone to come back in to pit, and then went out on inters with absolutely no traffic. For most of the session it looked as though di Resta had managed to secure provisional pole. That is, until the final minute of qualifying when the Mercedes’ and Red Bull’s knocked him down to provisional P5. Di Resta could not have been unluckier, having come back into the pits with half a minute left of the session, immediately Rosberg knocked him off P1, then Webber and Vettel. Having only just made it through to Q3, Hamilton posted the fastest time of the session as the last driver over the line.

In the end the top ten on the provisional grid shaped up as Hamilton, Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, di Resta, Button, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Alonso, Massa.

The wet-dry qualifying demonstrated just how quickly track conditions can change, and with that, the drivers who can dominate. The race is forecast to be wet making for a very slippy track. Hamilton feels confident driving in changing conditions, but who else will?

– Alex

End of Summer Break: 2014 Grid Changes

Over the summer break it was expected that Red Bull would announce who was filling the soon to be vacant second seat at the team. Eagerly we waited, and still, there has been no confirmed announcement from the team or any drivers. My poor nerves have been on edge especially over the past two weeks with a Finnish newspaper reporting that Kimi was moving to Ferrari, rumours that seemed to be confirmed as Kimi’s manager announced that talks with Red Bull had broken down a while ago. However, only last night Christian Horner came out and said that Kimi was still very much in contention. Various Australian news sources are reporting that the Red Bull seat is going to Daniel Ricciardo. Still, nothing has been confirmed, by anyone, at all. So as we’re all waiting, here are some of the options:

Kimi Raikkonen to Red Bull

Potentially a driver team set to dominate the 2014 season, despite quite radical changes to the cars for next year. I would expect the Red Bull Renault RB-10 to remain a dominate car on track given that Renault have had experience in making small turbo engines for decades. So a move to Red Bull could be in the best interest (points wise) for Kimi, even if he’d be more involved in publicity events for the team. The issue that arises with this move, is who would be the number two driver? Obviously the official number one driver would be current world champion Sebastian Vettel. Although, out of the major teams, Red Bull seem to have less of a hierarchy difference between the two drivers.. Well, most of the time (Silverstone in 2010). Though if it came down to it, I’d think Kimi would obey team orders similar to a Multi21 as much as as Seb did in Malaysia. Kimi is not meant to be a number two driver.

Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari

There is the similar issue as who would be the number two driver between Alonso and Kimi (assuming it was Massa who was given the flick). Though the Ferrari team have been very vocal about backing Massa despite a more than unlucky 2013 season so far. Which raises the question of would Alonso move to Red Bull? Rumours have been circulating of this move, but it seems to be more gossip than fact (I hope). It would however, make clear that Kimi would get the number one seat at the team. As far as competitiveness of the team goes, Ferrari feel that reliability of their 2014 engines will be a major issue for the team. Unlike Renault and Honda, Ferrari have very little experience in manufacturing small turbo engines, despite having the definite resources to developed them. Taking Kimi back on in 2014 would mean for the team admitting they made a mistake in 2008 by letting the Finn go a year early to replace him with Alonso. Awkward.

Kimi Raikkonen to stay at Lotus

This move (or lack there of) seems to be less spoken about, although I still feel it is a possibility. Lotus have shown real strength throughout this season, and despite rumours of financial crisis, are confident in their 2014 developments. It wouldn’t be the craziest move if Kimi decided to stay with the team that gave him a “second chance” and  a seat in Formula 1. While Kimi is without a doubt, a race car driver through and through, I do feel like he’d show a bit of loyalty to a team that has been so good to him. Despite rumours, Lotus know that wherever Kimi is, investment will follow, so it would be in Lotus’ best interest to keep him onboard.

Daniel Ricciardo to Red Bull

To me, this feels like the most likely option if the seat doesn’t go to Kimi, especially as it would mean “graduating” from Toro Rosso. Although I have to admit I would be disappointed, not because I don’t feel Ricciardo has the talent for RB, but the exact opposite. I’m worried that if Ricciardo went to Red Bull now, when Seb is at the height of his career, he’d be stuck as the number two driver in the team (and possibly his career). Ideally I’d like to see the seat go to Kimi at Red Bull, and then when Sebastian’s contract expires, for Ricciardo to step up and take the seat then when he’s had a few more seasons experience. On the other hand, Ricciardo’s past experience in the Red Bull car at testing (and his performance so far in Formula 1) might just mean that he could give Seb a run for his money.

While I feel like it will be most likely that the Red Bull seat will go to Ricciardo, nothing will be certain until the teams make their announcements (any day now). Until then, I will be eagerly refreshing Formula1.com for any updates.

– Alex

Alelbuth goes to track in a Formula Ford car

Alelbuth goes to track in a Formula Ford car

Two weeks ago, I headed out to the Mallala Race Circuit to experience driving a Formula Ford car. The day was organised as part of my twenty-third birthday, and I think I can safely say that I will never get a better present (unless Vettel lets me drive his RB9). The Mallala track, situated on an old air-force base, is 2.6km long and has everything you’d want from a track. Long straights, sweeping corners, a couple of hairpins, and a chicane for good measure. The day started with a driver briefing which took place in what I could only imagine the same kind of tin shed the F1 drivers’ have their FIA conferences…

There was quite an amusing moment while they took the roll of everyone signed up (again, I’m assuming this is exactly what happens in F1 as well). The room was full with the other drivers taking part in the track day, most of them were middle-aged men, but all men. The only females in the room (apart from myself) were either mothers or partners to the drivers. As the session started, the instructor was reading out the names “Ok do we have a Adam Smith? Ah yes theres Adam. Ok, Alex Thomson?” – I put up my hand with a casual “yes”, and he looked over in the direction of my voice and his eyes fixed on the man sitting next to me (who happened to be my friend). My friend smiled, pointed to me and said “No, not me, she’s Alex”. The instructor seemed a little taken aback and just said “Right! Excellent! Ok Alex Thomson. Here”. I had to smile as half the middle-aged men turned to look.

After a thirty minute briefing, which consisted of 25 minutes of “This is dangerous. You could die.” and 5 minutes of “This is amazing. Have fun.”, we were taken on an observation lap around the circuit in a V8. This was the first time you got a real feel for the track, and everyone seemed a nervously excited when after the hot lap our driver informed us that we’d be cruising at nearly twice the speed in our Formula Ford cars. My Formula Ford car was powered by a mid rear mounted Ford 1800cc Zetec engine mated to a Hewland racing transmission with a 4 speed manual and Formula specification clutch and flywheel package (I’ve included the full specs at the bottom).

My heart was racing by the time I had to get into my car. I had my own technician, which made me feel like a real driver (until I had to ask him to fasten the strap on my helmet). He strapped me into the car, saying “Struth! You’re the right size for a Formula Ford driver aren’t ya?”. I took his comment as a kind of compliment, and with that I was set to blow everyone away with my raw talent and speed on track. I had eight laps around the circuit. I was quite cautious on the first lap (as advised to do in our drivers’ briefing), and gave it a little bit more on lap 2. It was amazing, I’ve never experienced driving like that before. I could feel the engine behind me pushing me forward, rather than the pulling feeling you get with normal road cars. The power you got from gear changes was instantaneous, and the speed just didn’t run out. By the time I made through the esses and down the start/finish straight I was directly behind the car infront. The other driver was on the racing line (on the left hand side of the track) so I went to the right of him which allowed me to overtake and position myself nicely to make the apex of the next hairpin corner. It felt fantastic, and from what I heard from those watching, looked alright too. Over the next five laps my confidence grew and I began to take the corners at higher speed, this was when you could really feel the mechanical grip going to work, and the car just stuck to the track.

My confidence got the better of me by lap 7 however, as coming through the southern hairpin corner I pushed the car a little too hard and lost the back going in to quite a unspectacular spin (trust me, it was nothing like Sutil in Canada this year). So I got the session temporarily yellow flagged as I restarted my engine and manoeuvred myself back facing the right way. My final lap I took a little easier, and slipped off into the pit lane while muttering “Bawks, Bawks, Bawks!” to myself in my helmet. When I unstrapped myself from the car I was shaking again, not from nerves this time, but from the pure adrenaline that was pumping through my entire body. At the end of the pit I was met by my friend who, without hesitation asked “Alex, what happened?” – “I spun” “and uh.. a bit of a disaster then for you, and the other drivers with the yellow flag?” – “I don’t care what happened to the other drivers, I just pushed a bit too hard and lost the rear” (I feel Kimi would be proud). If I could have stayed out all day I would have, the feeling you get from driving those machines is just addictive, there really isn’t any other way to describe it. So… if any teams are looking for a new test driver I’d be more than happy to come fill the position (hire me please).

With that, my day as a Formula Ford driver drew to a close. It took me quite a few hours to come down from my adrenaline high, but eventually I was calm enough to function like a normal person. The next track day is in September, and I will definitely be going back.

– Alex

*For those readers who are in Australia, you can go for a track day like I did through Formula Ford Experience Australia.

The specs…

Chassis: Tubular space frame construction confined to maximum dimension.
Engine: 145 PS (143 hp or 107 kW and 140 lb·ft or 190 N·m)  DOHC four-cylinder Ford Zetec engine, sealed on cylinder head and front and rear crankshaft seal covers
Steering: Rack and pinion
Suspension: Front & Rear – pushrod activated dual damper system. Full racing car suspension designs are required to ensure maximum tyre grip at various cornering speeds. Chassis balance is adjustable and controlled by damper, spring and anti-roll bar combinations
Brakes: Four-wheel disc brakes have independent front and rear activation. Front/rear bias is adjustable
Gearbox: Limited to 4 forward and 1 reverse gear. Ratios can be changed to suit various circuits and conditions
Fuel tank: 41-litre
Tyres: Front & rear – 5.5 in Avon (ACB10) tyres. A grooved Avon racing tyre is chosen for optimum grip under all weather conditions. The Avon tyre and compound are specified, ensuring an economical wear rate

alelbuth

alelbuth on track

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