F1 European GP: Hometown Hero

For the first time this season, we have a repeat winner. It was only appropriate that the driver who has gotten the most out of his equipment this season and was racing in a home race was the first driver to win two races this year as Fernando Alonso picked up the surprise win. For a race on the streets of Valencia, this race was full of drama with passing and crashing a regular occurrence. The race will also be remembered for Michael Schumacher scoring the first podium of his comeback as he scored a hard-fought third place finish.

Saturday was definitely a day of polar opposites for Red Bull Racing. While Sebastian Vettel was able to score his second straight pole position of the season and the third straight for Red Bull. His teammate, Mark Webber, didn’t even make it out of Q1 as he timed in some three-tenths of a second behind Heikki Kovalainen in the Caterham for the final transfer spot. So the Red Bull team started at the front and back in 1st and 19th.

Vettel led away from the lights and absolutely dominated the race until the first safety car. He started off the race by opening up a gap of two seconds per lap for the first couple of laps. By the time the race reached the halfway point, Vettel’s lead was some 20 seconds over Romain Grosjean in second place who had managed to pass Lewis Hamilton for the position.

A safety car for debris from a collision involving Heikki Kovalainen and Jean-Eric Vergne bunched the field up and set us up for an exciting finish. Vettel was able to keep his lead over Grosjean. A pair of front jack failures caused Lewis Hamilton to lose third place to Fernando Alonso at Hamilton’s pitstop was eight seconds longer than Ferrari’s. Ironically, McLaren had boasted earlier this weekend that pit stop practice saw the team regularly set stop times under 3 seconds. This stop was over 12 seconds.

When the safety car pulled in, Alonso immediately pounced on Grosjean into Turn 2 to take over second place. Vettel’s lead only lasted another half-lap as his car ground to a halt with an alternator failure and forced him to retire. That handed the lead to Alonso with Grosjean on his tail. That challenge didn’t last much longer as seven laps after Vettel’s car failure, Grosjean’s alternator failed too which caused the Lotus to retire. That opened up enough of a gap that Alonso was able to protect his tyres en route to his first win on the streets of Valencia and second win of the season.

The racing wasn’t done behind Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen forced his way by Lewis Hamilton for 2nd place. Hamilton’s tyres were going off in a cruel irony after Alonso’s tyre degradation gave him the win in Canada. Pastor Maldonado was next to have a go at Hamilton with two laps remaining. The McLaren driver made his car very wide (to the point where it looked like a blocking warning would be justified) and made it difficult for the Williams to get by. When Maldonado was able to get alongside Hamilton, Lewis forced Maldonado wide. When Pastor forced his way back onto the circuit to avoid speed bumps and cutting corners, he side-swiped Hamilton which put Lewis out and forced Maldonado into the pits for repairs. Maldonado crossed the line in 10th but was penalized 20 seconds after the race for avoidable contact which promoted his teammate, Bruno Senna, to 10th.

A clever bit of pit strategy gave Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber the freshest rubber on track at the end of the race. Both drivers ran a two-stop strategy race which left them on newer soft tyres than the cars ahead of them. Over the dying laps of the race, the two drivers picked off the competition and took advantage of the retirements of drivers near the front. Schumacher was able to score his first podium in 99 races. His previous podium was in 2006 when he won the Chinese Grand Prix.

Rounding out the top five behind Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher were Mark Webber and Nico Hulkenberg. Farther back were Nico Rosberg, Paul di Resta, Jenson Button, Sergio Perez and Bruno Senna filling out the points paying positions.

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Bernie Ecclestone doesn’t know how to get out of his own way. After suggesting that the Circuit of the Americas is unlikely to be ready for this season’s penultimate race, he’s changed his focus to undermining the efforts at the Port Imperial Street Circuit in New Jersey. On Saturday, the Formula One Supremo told the BBC that he doesn’t believe that the circuit will be ready for F1’s visit next June. This concern about failure is coming from the same man who refused to give up on the Korean International Circuit which was only completed two weeks prior to the first Korean Grand Prix. Even then, the circuit wasn’t quite ready to host a Grand Prix. One year is a long time so I think it’s premature to write-off the Grand Prix of America already.

Meanwhile, the Circuit of the Americas was visited by Charlie Whiting after the Canadian Grand Prix for a preliminary inspection of the facility. The F1 race director said that the resources that COTA is putting into construction at the moment indicate to him that the facility will be complete on-time and up to FIA standards. He will also make a second preliminary inspection in August before his formal pre-race inspection  on September 25th.

So why does Bernie seem so keen to undermine the two American races? He should know that people won’t put money into these projects if “experts” suggest that they’ll fail so his negative comments aren’t intended to motive organizers. Instead, I think he’s looking to create free space on the schedule. With the Formula One calendar capped at 20 races in a season and more countries applying for races all the time, it would appear that Ecclestone is trying to find room for more profitable races. Including the GP of America, there are 17 races signed for next season with three races from this season (Belgium, Japan and Singapore) still without a contract for next year. Argentina and France are both trying to get on the calendar as well. That means there are 22 races vying for 20 spots on the calendar. That would explain Bernie’s motivations to kill some events.

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CVC Capital Partners is the majority owner of Formula One Group. FOG is the group that owns the commercial rights to F1 which allows it to control seeming all revenue coming into the sport. They sell the TV broadcasting rights, put together the race calendars (though the FIA has final approval over the schedule but it’s often a rubber stamp), negotiate contracts with race promoters and sign sponsorship deals with official Formula One sponsors.

CVC has been getting out of Formula One ahead of an IPO of FOG. They have sold 20.9% of the company for $1.6 billion to a group of investors ahead of a planned initial public offering of Formula One Group at an unspecified date in the future. The F1 IPO was delayed earlier this month after the failure of the Facebook IPO. Despite the share of ownership sold, CVC is believed to still own approximately 49.1% of the company based on an estimate 70% ownership share prior to the sale.

The reason why Formula One fans should be interested in the IPO is that FOG ultimately will have to answer to a group of investors rather than just CVC. This may change how FOG operates which will in turn change how Formula One operates. The investors will also be looking for a succession plan to be put into place for Bernie Ecclestone. The most powerful man in F1 is 82-years-old with no heir apparent to the F1 throne. If Ecclestone dies before a successor is put in place, who knows what sort of effect that will have on the sport.

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The next round of the 2012 Formula One World Championship brings us back to the home base for the majority of teams in the paddock. England is home to the industry of Formula One and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone is considered the home race for eight of the twelve teams on the grid. All teams but Ferrari (Italy), Sauber (Switzerland), Toro Rosso (Italy) and HRT (Spain) have their factories in England.

The addition of the new Arena circuit configuration has proven successful over the last couple of seasons. The track is now the second fastest on the calendar with only Monza having a faster average lap speed. That would make you think that the track favours the higher horsepower engines like the Mercedes and, to a lesser extent, the Ferraris. However, Vettel looked astonishingly fast in the Red Bull this weekend before the car ground to a halt. Red Bull has also taken three of four possible podiums in two years on Silverstone’s Arena Circuit. Despite the fact that Alonso has broken the streak and become the first driver to win two races this season, I think we’re still due for another unpredictable twist this season.

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