F1 Italian GP: Need For Speed

It wasn’t quite as perfect as what his teammate did last weekend but it was a victory from pole for Lewis Hamilton in the Italian Grand Prix. Lewis’ win could be considered all the more impressive because this weekend has seen Lewis’ name closely linked with a seat at Mercedes GP starting next season. The Tifosi had something to cheer for as Ferrari-powered cars finished second through fourth but were unable to match McLaren’s pace.

Lewis Hamilton scored pole just ahead of teammate Jenson Button for the Italian GP. While Lewis led away from the lights, Button was swiftly pipped off the line for second by Felipe Massa. However, Massa couldn’t keep pace with Hamilton who stormed off and wasn’t seen again. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso started 10th but was up to 6th within one lap as he slashed his way through the field. It took the Spaniard five laps to get by Michael Schumacher for 5th and 22 laps after that to get by Vettel for 4th (which included a close call as Vettel forced Alonso wide at the Curva Grande as he tried to pass the Red Bull driver on the outside).

Up front, Hamilton led comfortably but was denied a lights to flag victory by Sergio Perez. The Sauber driver started 12th on hard tyres and ran to Lap 30 in his first stint. When Hamilton pitted for his one stop on Lap 23, Perez took the lead which he held for six laps. The stop dropped Perez to 8th but with fresh tyres, he quickly began marching his way to the front. He was able to force his way up to 2nd place but couldn’t find quite enough speed to catch Hamilton for the win.

While the Hamilton win didn’t make the Tifosi happy, they did have Ferrari drivers in Perez, Alonso and Massa to cheer home with 2nd, 3rd and 4th place finishes, respectively. Kimi Raikkonen always seemed to be in the middle of the action but kept the car clean en route to a 5th place finish. Rounding out the points paying positions were Schumacher, Nico Rosberg, Paul di Resta, Kamui Kobayashi and Bruno Senna.

The Drivers’ Championship closed up slightly as a result of today’s race. Hamilton moved up to second in the championship but closed by only 10 points to 37 behind Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen has quietly stayed in the hunt for the title. He’s only one point behind Hamilton which puts him 38 off the championship lead. It was a bad day for the Red Bull Racing team as neither driver scored points. Vettel had an alternator problem which forced his retirement, leaving him 39 points behind Alonso but only 2 back of Hamilton. Rounding out the top five in points is Mark Webber who is 47 points off the lead after retiring after a spin late in the race resulted in heavily flat-spotted tyres.

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I saw quite a few complaints on Twitter about the Tifosi booing Lewis Hamilton after the race. He beat Ferrari in Italy in front of die-hard Ferrari fans. It would be the equivalent of Real Madrid scoring on Barcelona at Camp Nou. Would the home fans cheer their archrival’s success? Hell no! They’d boo them out of the building. It’s the same principle here. The Tifosi wanted Ferrari to win and their nemesis (McLaren and Lewis Hamilton) won. They were well within their right to boo Hamilton’s victory. Racing is a sport just like any other where people are allowed to boo the participants.

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After the first corner crash at Spa last week, there has been quite a bit of talk about introducing some sort of closed-cockpit or other head protection for drivers with the redesigned cars as a result of introducing the new engine formula in 2014. The FIA has been looking at both canopies and roll-bars in safety tests to determine a mix between protection for the drivers and visibility.

However, I think that Formula One should take a page out of IndyCar’s books and adopt the rear tyre guards that the series added this season. These guards were added specifically to prevent crashes like last week’s at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix where a car is launched as a result of wheel-to-wheel contact. There hasn’t been too much in the way of wheel-to-wheel contact this season as a result. Usually, the end result of contact between the front wing and rear tyre is a cut tyre. However, the tyre guards have protected the tyres from contact which has saved more than a few drivers’ races. I would be shocked if Formula One didn’t introduce tyre guards in 2014 whether or not they are able to settle on a cockpit design.

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Silly season seems to have kicked off in earnest this weekend. The hot rumour coming into Monza was that Mercedes GP has offered Lewis Hamilton a contract to jump ship from the only F1 team he has driven for. Who he would replace isn’t known yet. Mercedes says they expect a decision from Michael about his future in October. If Schumi retires, Hamilton will replace him. If Schumacher carries on driving, it’s likely that Rosberg is the odd man out. Mercedes-Benz uses the F1 team to help sell cars and Schumacher does that just by his association with Mercedes. Unless Rosberg wins on Sundays to sell on Mondays (note the use of plural there), he’s looking for future employment (likely at McLaren).

The other key domino to the driver market is the second seat at Ferrari. Massa was a good driver prior to hitting the spring in Hungary in 2009. However, he hasn’t been close to the same calibre of driver since. He can score points but he doesn’t do so consistently and isn’t helping Alonso by not pushing him to go faster. That’s why the team was interested in Webber who would keep pace with Alonso without giving him too much of a headache (like Hamilton in 2007 at McLaren). So who’s rumoured to be in line for the seat? Massa could stay for another year until a longer term solution can be found. Potential new drivers include Nico Hulkenberg, Paul di Resta and even Michael Schumacher. That last one is a new rumour but seeing Michael close out his career in a Ferrari would be appropriate. However, after this race, I’d be looking at Perez again.

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Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo held court with the press during his regular annual appearance at the Italian Grand Prix. He talked about trying to grow F1 with young viewers and other things that can be done to improve the “show” of Formula One. He’s suggested shorter races because a 90-minute Grand Prix is too long for the attention spans of today’s youth. He also thinks that soccer has it right with start times later in the day which would attract more viewers in Europe (and be at a more reasonable time for North American viewers).

While I think he’s onto something with the later start times, I don’t think that the length of races need to be changed. I’ll use soccer as the comparison since that’s what di Montezemolo used for start times. A soccer match is over 90 minutes in length and that’s not including the half-time break which brings the total length of a match to two hours. The average North American sporting match (football, basketball, baseball and hockey) run for an average three hours (longer for football which is the most watched sport in America). An exciting event with passing and drama which hooks people into watching will get people to watch. Di Montezemolo is right to want to improve the show but his solution of shortening the race is the wrong way to go.

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The next round of the 2012 Formula One World Championship is the only night race on the schedule, the Singapore Grand Prix. Given how cool the spectacle is and how Bernie wants favourable TV times for the European viewing audience (i.e. not the morning), I’m surprised more haven’t been added. Sure, Abu Dhabi ends at night but it starts at twilight.

Given that the race is at night, the track temperatures won’t be much higher than ambient air temperatures. While it will still be warm in Singapore, the teams able to keep heat in their tyres will have an advantage. At the street circuits this season, Sebastian Vettel has routinely been among the fastest drivers. The recently found speed of the McLarens will make them a threat once again. Finally, not to sound like a broken record, it would be ill-advised to overlook Alonso and Raikkonen given how well they have driven this season.

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