The second night race in Formula One history was missing that intangible that the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix had. Maybe it was the initial spectacle that wore off. Or it could have been the fact that we didn’t have an unexpected winner as Lewis Hamilton held on to the lead from pole and was never really challenged. We did have two unexpected cars on the podium with Lewis and one was quite ironic. Meanwhile, the story of the race was brakes as drivers were forced to retire or back off massively.
For the second time this season, Lewis Hamilton took the win at a grand prix. Like his last win, it was from the pole and it was at a track where passing is nearly impossible. Still, he ran a smooth race, did his job and got the win.
He got some help from the drivers chasing him, though. First, Nico Rosberg was keeping pace with the McLaren until the first round of pit stops. Rosberg lost control on the pit exit road and pulled a four-wheel drift across the white pit exit line. That was enough to earn him a drive-through penalty. Rather than contend for the win, he ended up finishing 11th. Sebastian Vettel was the next to push Hamilton. He was right on the leader’s tail during the second stint but was caught speeding on pit road. The drive-through penalty dropped him from contention but not from the points paying positions.
Speaking of points, we were short one contender after the race. An eventful day for Mark Webber left the Red Bull driver 32.5 points behind with only three races to go. On the first lap, Webber ran side-by-side with Fernando Alonso. Webber was forced wide across a curb in the middle of the street to complete the pass. The race stewards decided that the curb was the boundary of the racing surface and forced Webber to relinquish his 4th place to Fernando Alonso who was then 6th. That meant letting Timo Glock through as well. As the race went on, Webber’s brakes got worse until the right-front brake failed altogether on Lap 46 which sent him backwards into the barrier.
That Webber crash could have brought out a safety car so Brawn brought in Rubens Barrichello but left Button out. Jenson stayed out 5 more laps and was able to vault by Barrichello and rack up a 10 second lead. When his brakes started going off with less than 10 laps to go, the team warned Rubens of impeding brake troubles and told him to slow down despite the fact he was catching Jenson by a second a lap. Still, Barrichello caught Button and finished less than a second behind. Button’s fifth gave him one more point that Barrichello’s sixth place finish. They were both beat by Vettel who salvaged a fourth. Button leads the points by 15 over Barrichello with Vettel 25 points behind.
I mentioned that this race was missing something and I think it was passing. It’s not exactly something that’s unique to Singapore. All street circuits are difficult to pass at. The spectacle of Monaco makes up for the lack of racing. The spectacle of racing under the lights is supposed to make up for the lack of good racing. However, it seemed to be missing this year. There seemed to be a festival atmosphere at Singapore last year and they had a big concert series there this year. For some reason, we didn’t see any footage of it at home. That would have made things more “festive” feeling for viewers. That and if there was less dust in the air, that would have helped.
However, I think the problem is bigger than that. I think application of ridiculous penalties made this race less fun than last year’s. It started with that penalty to Mark Webber. He was forced wide of the curb by Alonso and made the pass. He didn’t want to go there. What’s wrong with letting them race as long as they aren’t short-cutting the track? Nico Rosberg’s race was ruined because he ran wide of the pit exit line. He didn’t get in anyone’s way or otherwise affect the race and yet he was penalized. Adrian Sutil got fined for taking out Nick Heidfeld as he tried to spin his car back around. It’s not like he pulled a Paul Tracy and haphazardly pulled out of a runoff area in-front of the field. He just kept his foot in the throttle and spun back around. That was just one of those racing deals.
The FIA has its race stewards enforcing so many ridiculous rules trying to keep racing clean that it must get detrimental to racing. It’s gotten to the point where if you bump into another car, you will get penalized. The FIA is busy changing the designs of the cars to make overtaking easier but they should start by changing the rules. If touching another car is enough for a drive through penalty or running off course without short-cutting the track is enough to force a position swap, no one will be bothered to push for a pass. The way the rules are written makes the risk of getting a penalty far greater than the reward for making a risky overtaking attempt.
The other story of the race was the condition of the brakes. It used to be that the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada was considered the hardest track on brakes in F1. After yesterday’s race, I think we may have a new title holder. It started with Romain Grosjean having brake problems all weekend which forced him to retire three laps in. It was quiet on the brake front until Mark Webber came in for his second stop. On the pit road access road, brake dust came pouring out and the stop was extended while mechanics checked the brakes. The next lap, his right-front brake appeared to fail which spun Webber into the barrier. Then, the two Toro Rosso cars were parked (though Buemi was retired for reported “gearbox” issues rather than brakes).
All those drivers just mentioned ran brakes manufactured by Brembo. I haven’t been able to track down all the drivers running Brembos but it would seem that they all had some brake problems.
However, my vote for happiest team would be divided between Toyota and Renault. Timo Glock was the beneficiary of the penalties handed to Webber, Rosberg, and Vettel which promoted him to second. With the Toyota board of directors rumoured to be considering ending funding to the F1 team, a big performance was needed soon. Fortunately for them, it was at a race that was practically in Toyota’s backyard. A podium at Suzuka will virtually guarantee funding for the 2010 season. Renault seemed to be pretty pleased too… Or was it relieved. Fernando Alonso was strong all weekend and drove an uneventful race to a third place finish. They needed that after the events of the past two weeks. A slight irony was Alonso dedicating the podium finish to Flavio Briatore. I don’t think Renault management and sponsors wanted to hear that.
It looks like there is more to the Virgin Group sponsoring Manor Grand Prix than we first realized. It has been reported that corporate filings indicate that Richard Branson’s company has taken control of the team. If you recall, Branson was rumoured to be trying to buy into Brawn GP but didn’t like the price. Apparently the price was right to buy Manor. A Virgin executive is expected to take over the day to day running of the team as team principal. The drivers that are favoured for the seat are Christian Klien and Anthony Davidson. Don’t ask me what the rumoured time is when Branson considers this a bad idea. It should be no later than round nine but likely earlier. Brawn, this new outfit ain’t.
The silly season rumour mill has been very quiet over the last couple of weeks. I would assume that it’s because everyone has been waiting for the fallout from Renault’s Crashgate hearing to start making plans for next season. Robert Kubica looks destined for either Renault or Williams. If he goes to Williams, he’ll be racing with GP2 champion Nico Hulkenburg who will replace Kaz Nakajima. Kimi Raikkonen has been told that his spot isn’t secure with the team next season despite having a contract worth $49 Million (or maybe it’s because he has a contract worth $49 Million). Fernando Alonso is expected to be at Ferrari and bringing sponsorship from Spanish insurance Mutua Madrilena with him. The only way Raikkonen will still drive for Ferrari is if the doctors won’t clear Felipe Massa to drive in 2010.
It’s a short turn around for the F1 boys. Next Sunday, they’ll be at the Suzuka Circuit for the Japanese Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso won last year’s race without the help of Nelson Piquet but that was at the Fuji Circuit. The last time the F1 circus visited Suzuka was in 2006. How different were things back then? Well, Fernando Alonso won the race after Michael Schumacher’s engine failed. Alonso won the last race for Michelin tires and there were test drivers allowed to run during Friday practice to help lower testing budgets.
Suzuka may be a fast circuit but requires a fair amount of downforce because of the sheer number of medium speed turns. The premium here is on handling which favours the Brawns. Jenson Button has never finished out of the points at Suzuka and should put a stranglehold on the championship this Sunday. The Red Bulls like fast tracks but I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with the Brawns. I said the same thing about Singapore and Vettel out-paced both Brawns all race until that drive through penalty.