The Hungarian Grand Prix is traditionally one of the dullest races of the season. The Hungaroring is like a go-kart track that somebody put through the photocopier on enlarge. To win there, you need to qualify up front and hope for no mistakes on pit road. Pretty simple strategy but that’s exactly what determined the winner. Well, that and the magical KERS button.
Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian GP coming from fourth on the grid to win the first race with KERS-equipped car. As I mentioned off the top, it was KERS and the pits that helped Lewis to the win. He hit his KERS boost off the line and survived a four-wide moment at the exit of the first turn to come out in third. On the next lap, Lewis passed Mark Webber for second (using KERS to make an otherwise impossible) pass for second. He then followed pole-sitter Fernando Alonso until his first stop before taking the lead for good. Mind you, it wasn’t that Lewis worked to win the race as he was handed the race. The right-front wheel shroud on Alonso’s car was left loose which caused it to fly off the car and damage the wheel nut. The wheel wobble caused by the loose shroud slowed Alonso enough to ruin his race but when his wheel came off the car, it was game over.
Meanwhile, a little further back. Kimi Raikkonen got to fourth on the start from seventh. Who’s missing from the front of the grid? That’s Sebastian Vettel who plummeted from 2nd to 7th after contact with Raikkonen in the first corner. Vettel would later retire from the race complaining about suspension damage from the run in with the Finn. Anyway, Kimi held 4th until the first round of pitstops when Webber had a problem refuelling which allowed the Ferrari by. The Alonso retirement left him with a comfortable second. Webber kept it clean from there for third. Nico Rosberg had an incident free race to finish 4th. The only surprises in the points were the Toyotas who used pit strategy to move Glock to 5th and Trulli (in front of a train) to 8th.
All in all, this was a pathetically boring race. The only passes were either pit or KERS aided. So what happens when the teams stop running KERS and refuelling cars in 2010? Like the My Chemical Romance song, welcome to the black parade. Hungary is a go-kart track. You’re turning so much that you can’t get a run on anyone. Mind you, the aerodynamics means that you don’t have enough grip to get close enough to get a run on someone.
After the tragic F2 accident involving Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch last week, safety concerns would likely crop up at this week’s GP. I thought it would be your typical discussion of how motorsports is inherently dangerous and if it wasn’t, everyone would do it. What no one expected was a quasi-reprise of that accident.
Felipe Massa was hit in the helmet with a spring off Rubens Barrichello’s car which stunned the Ferrari driver. Massa remained conscious and was able to keep his wits about him enough to apply the brakes. But I think that was more instinctive than conscious though because his foot was still on the throttle as well so he ploughed head on into a tire barrier. Massa’s G-force impact indicator light turned on indicating that it was a heavy collision.
The question comes back to safety again. Could anything have been done to prevent this? I don’t think so. You have to remember that this was a small piece of debris and when was the last time you saw a spring come off an F1 car. It did stun Massa but all the other safety advances over time prevented this from being tragic. That’s not to say that improvements can’t be made. I’m sure one could make the argument that, in time, the cars should have some sort of system to prevent high-speed collisions with the barrier whether it’s a pit wall override or a radar/GPS based braking system. I think the tire barrier is an outdated crash barrier. At a temporary street circuit, it’s has to be used because of the nature of the track. As for permanent road courses, it’s time that the FIA looks at the SAFER Barrier that is commonly found on American oval tracks. The SAFER barrier is often credited with reducing the severity of impacts with the wall. The damage to the car is the same as hitting concrete but the soft wall does absorb a great deal of the impact so that it’s not absorbed by the driver.
Speaking of the Massa accident, there was a small controversy over replacing Massa as a driver. FIA rules state that a team cannot switch drivers after qualifying but an exception is made if the race stewards invoke force majeure. I think that this is ridiculous. Now the stewards… But it’s completely ridiculous that F1 teams have to go through all this red tape to replace a driver. I hope that the driver replacement rule is rewritten to the effect of “Drivers that cannot participate in a race session for a valid reason (i.e. medical or personal reasons) but have participated in the qualifying session can be substituted for by a team’s nominated reserve driver who has a valid FIA Super Licence. Any substitute driver must start the race from the last starting position.” Essentially, that’s a long-winded way of stating the NASCAR rule of “You want to switch drivers after qualifying? Go to the back of the pack.”
Back to Alonso’s missing wheel, the FIA’s race stewards in Hungary didn’t look too fondly on the wheel shroud and wheel coming off the car. Citing a series of rules stating that Renault knowingly released an unsafe on to the race track, the stewards have banned Renault from the next round of the F1 season. This is almost certainly an unprecedented action for a tire coming off. Vettel ran some distance without a tire in Australia and was only fined $50,000.
I’m guessing the recent incidents of Massa and Surtees being hit by debris off cars is the reason that the penalty is so harsh. The FIA should be commended for trying to cut down on those incidents. However, I don’t think Renault intended to send the car out with a loose wheel or shroud. It would be like saying that a team that left pit lane with the fuel rig attached (like Massa at Singapore 2008) should be banned from the next race. If this was purely accidental on the part of the team/driver, a fine should be issued for having an unsafe car but anything more would be ridiculously harsh. Now the FIA has changed the standard of punishment and sentence to the point where it wouldn’t be inconceivable that bumping into another driver could be a bannable offense because it’s unsafe. For the sake of those interested, the last team to be banned was Honda (now Brawn GP) because they ran their cars underweight though a bit of intentional fuel tank trickery.
Meanwhile, the world out of the paddock is that this penalty and ban is the final nail in the coffin of Alonso’s career at Renault. It’s expected that Ferrari will announce that they’ve signed the Spaniard sooner or later. I doubt Spanish race fans will be happy either as their hero will not be at the European GP in Valencia. Also, Renault fans have likely seen the last of Nelson Piquet Jr. He was rumoured to be out of the car before Valencia whether the team was penalized or not.
Let’s go back to terrible tracks for a minute. With passing likely to become harder with the changes being introduced next season, it’s time to look at eliminating tracks that are high-speed parade routes. Hungary is my first one off the schedule. Monaco may have little passing but at least there’s always something happening which makes it a good show. Similarly, Singapore isn’t great but it has a good enough gimmick to make it interesting. Malaysia, Bahrain, and Shanghai (all Herman Tilke designed tracks) are generally boring races. Malaysia is the worst offender and would be my first choice off the schedule.
As for tracks that need to fill out the schedule, Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is a must. Never a dull moment and always opportunities to get by the car in front. It’s a great little track. Speaking of track with something always happening, how about the 4-mile long Road America track in Wisconsin. A pipe dream if ever there was one but it’s high speed and there are always opportunities to pass coming off the 200 MPH straights. Brno in the Czech Republic is another high speed circuit and has a fair amount of passing but it’s so high speed that I’m worried that the aero sensitivity of the cars might limit passing opportunities. The Circuito Potrero de los Funes in Argentina is a semi-permanent track based around a lake and follows local roads which makes it a real challenge but a beautiful track too. If we’re talking about moving races around, the Aussie GP should move to Bathurst which is fast, dangerous, and has lots of elevation changes.
Is it a good thing that KERS is being voluntarily abandoned by FOTA teams in 2010? With the way things are going now, I think it is. KERS is being used by two teams (McLaren and Ferrari) and they aren’t actually using it to improve racing. The extra 80 horsepower, which was intended to aid passing, is being used for defending positions and inhibiting passing. That’s a by-product of the push-to-pass system and you can’t fault the drivers for using everything at their disposal to stay ahead. But the fact is that KERS-aided passes are far rarer than KERS-aided pass prevention.
Ignoring the fact that only one-fifth of the grid actually has KERS, there is a bigger problem with the current KERS setup. It’s that the drivers get six seconds of boost every lap. Other series with a push-to-pass system (Palmer Audi, Champ Car) had a finite boost over the course of the race. F1 cars have a seemingly infinite amount of boost. There is no need to use strategy because the driver just hits the KERS button whenever he reaches the best passing zones (which are usually the longest straights). In other series, you would only be able to use the push-to-pass so many times (8 times in Palmer Audi and 60 seconds in Champ Car) which forces you to wait for the optimal time to use it to make a pass. You could use it to prevent a pass but that means that you have fewer opportunities to use it in the future. Without that element of strategy, KERS as an element to improve racing is useless. Even if everyone had it, it would be just as well as if no one had KERS.
However, making only a finite amount of KERS boost time available over a race would seem to counteract some rules that the FIA wants for F1. There are times when I swear that the FIA wants F1 cars to be easily driven by monkeys.
Next up is the Formula One summer feature called “How I Spend My Summer Vacation.” The F1 circus will take a four week break before returning to action on the Valencia parade route. Over the break, every team must close their factories for two weeks. That means no construction or research can happen over the two weeks. Only administrative and janitorial duties are allowed to happen during the vacation. Meanwhile, some drivers have plans. Mark Webber is undergoing more surgery on his right leg which was broken in a bicycling accident over the winter. Kimi Raikkonen will run the Rally Finland while teammate Filipe Massa will continue recovery after his qualifying accident and we’ll see if he’ll be back in action at the Alonso-less European Grand Prix.