F1 Singapore Grand Prix: Stop. Spanner Time.

Just when you thought that none of the luck at Mercedes was going Lewis Hamilton’s way, his championship chances got a massive boost in Singapore. When the cars formed up on the grid, it looked like it was going to be another week of Hamilton slowly chipping away at Nico Rosberg’s championship lead. Instead, Rosberg suffered a massive failure before the formation lap. That handed the win and the championship lead to Hamilton.

Hamilton scored the pole on Saturday by only seven-thousandths of a second. That’s roughly the length of a front-wing endplate at full speed. With the two Silver Arrows so close, we were gearing up for a classic duel between the teammates.

However, the battle never materialized. Hamilton left Rosberg on the line. Literally. Rosberg suffered a fault in the wiring in the steering column that crippled his car and left him sitting on the grid at the start of the formation lap. While he was able to get going, the car had no pace. When Nico came in for his first pitstop, he had to retire because he had a gearbox full of neutrals and couldn’t get moving again.

Up front, it was a rather dull race for Lewis Hamilton. He didn’t streak away from the field at first but was able to build up a sufficient enough lead that he lost the lead on only one exchange of three pitstops. He lost the lead on his second stop but regained it quickly under safety car when closest challengers Vettel and Ricciardo pitted for tyres. Hamilton put in a series of fast laps under green to open up enough of a gap to hold the lead through his third stop and score the win as the two-hour time limit expired at the end of Lap 60 which ended the race one lap shy of complete.

The win was Hamilton’s 7th of the season which gives him three more than Rosberg and three more points than Nico as well. Sebastian Vettel looked like a threat to win the race with that well-timed safety car but fortune was not on his side as he finished in 2nd. Daniel Ricciardo finished in 3rd to give Red Bull their second double-podium of the season.

Fernando Alonso scored a 4th to move to 4th in the Drivers’ standings. Felipe Massa was the lone Williams to score after Bottas’ tyres fell off entirely on the final lap. He finished in 5th. Jean-Eric Vergne took advantage of a very late pitstop to scythe through the field to finish in 6th. He was given a five-second penalty after being forced wide of the white lines on an overtake move but was so fast that he didn’t lose a spot. Sergio Perez crossed the line in 7th. Kimi Raikkonen was 8th. Nico Hulkenberg ended his pointless streak at one race with a 9th. Kevin Magnussen rounded out the points in 10th.

The big story in the two weeks between Monza and Singapore was the FIA deciding to “clarify” Article 20.1 of the Sporting Regulations. This rule says that the drivers must drive the car “alone and unaided.” The result of the clarifying was the FIA all but banning pit-to-car radio.

f1-2014-singapore-sauberThere was some concern from the FIA and some members of the media that drivers were getting too much coaching from the pit wall during the race and this rules clarification was supposed to put a stop to that. They issued a clarification that the only things allowed to be communicated over the radio or pit board were information that could be summed up as times, gaps, strategy information and safety information.

The banned list was:

  • Sector time detail of a competitor and where a competitor is faster or slower.
  • Adjustment of power unit settings.
  • Adjustment of power unit setting to de-rate the systems.
  • Adjustment of gearbox settings.
  • Learning of gears of the gearbox (will only be enforced from the Japanese Grand Prix onwards).
  • Balancing the SOC [state-of-charge of batteries] or adjusting for performance.
  • Information on fuel flow settings (except if requested to do so by race control).
  • Information on level of fuel saving needed.
  • Information on tyre pressures or temperatures.
  • Information on differential settings.
  • Start maps related to clutch position, for race start and pit stops.
  • Information on clutch maps or settings, e.g. bite point.
  • Burn-outs prior to race starts.
  • Information on brake balance or BBW (brake-by-wire) settings.
  • Warning on brake wear or temperatures.
  • Selection of driver default settings (other than in the case of a clearly identified problem with the car).
  • Answering a direct question from a driver, e.g. “Am I using the right torque map”?
  • Any message that appears to be coded.

The feedback from drivers, teams, fans and the media was overwhelmingly negative. The FIA was the ones who introduced the need for the needlessly complex set of systems on the car this year with the need for fuel flow monitoring and adjustment and the ERS capture and use setup with the switch to the more “green” Formula One. Just driving the cars is enough work with the help of the teams telling the drivers what knobs to turn to keep the car from shutting down, turning them from just drivers to drivers and IT workers simultaneously.

Having temporarily seen the error of their ways, the FIA postponed the implementation of the above list of banned messages until 2015. However, they did introduce a new list that limits banned messages to driver coaching.

That new list of banned messages is:

  • Driving lines on the circuit.
  • Contact with kerbs.
  • Car set up parameters for specific corners.
  • Comparative or absolute sector time detail of another driver.
  • Speeds in corners compared to another driver.
  • Gear selection compared with another driver.
  • Gear selection in general.
  • Braking points.
  • Rate of braking compared to another driver.
  • Rate of braking or application of brakes in general.
  • Car stability under braking.
  • Throttle application compared to another driver.
  • Throttle application in general.
  • Use of DRS compared with another driver.
  • Use of any overtake button.
  • Driving technique in general.

I can’t say I’m a fan of the idea of regulating radio messages. I can live with the current list of driver coaching messages. That’s what debriefs with engineers are for. However, not allowing the teams to give messages about things like brake temperatures, fuel levels and flow, and the ERS devices makes no sense. Drivers were brought into F1 because they were good at changing dials. In fact, F1 is the only series with all of these bells and whistles. What’s the point of having a team if they’re not allowed to support the driver?

Bernie Ecclestone added fuel to the fire that was the possibility of Formula One going down to only eight teams with each running three teams to get to a 24 car grid.

Bernie was interviewed this weekend and clarified how this would come to effect. He says that the Concorde Agreement require a minimum number of cars on the grid. If three more teams leave the grid, the remaining eight teams would be required under the agreement to add a third car to get the grid up to a sufficient car count.

So we can extrapolate from Bernie’s comments that Formula One is required to field a minimum grid of 18 cars. Presumably that means that as long as there are nine teams fielding cars, there isn’t a requirement for teams to add cars. With Forza Rossa and Haas F1 coming in 2016, it’s likely that three car teams should be a one year measure at most.

That begs the question of who is likely to be leaving the sport. Everyone in the paddock agrees that Caterham will not return in 2015. The remaining teams in the most dire financial straits would be Sauber and Marussia. Marussia might be able to squeeze out another season thanks to sitting 9th in the World Constructors’ Championship. They might be the healthiest of the three backmarkers unless accumulated debt drags it under.

Sauber might be the one with the biggest question mark over its head. Last season, reports were that Sauber could have been forced to close at any moment. The Russian cash injection has kept it alive through this season but they haven’t brought in significant new sponsorship since BMW abandoned the team in 2009 (apart from Perez’s Telmex sponsorship).

I’d rather see the prize pool distribution change to make Formula One more financially feasible for small teams than see the sport go to three-car teams. It’s been obvious for a while that the sport’s so-called cost cutting and cost management efforts aren’t working. With so many teams biting the dust over the last decade, it’s clear that the status quo doesn’t work. But so long as the teams who benefit from the status quo are left in charge of the sport, nothing will change and we’ll be having this discussion again in five years or less.

The next round of the 2014 Formula One World Championship takes place in two weeks’ time. This is where the schedule stops making sense. Rather than making the relatively short jump from Singapore to Japan in a week and then taking two weeks to go to Russia, it’s two weeks to Japan and a back-to-back with Russia. Let’s go halfway ’round the world in a week to a new track and country that sponsors might be leery about bringing money to.

Anyway, the next race is the Japanese Grand Prix from the Suzuka Circuit. Since this race is likely to come down to the two Mercedes drivers, it looks to be advantage to Hamilton. When luck hasn’t gone against Lewis, he’s done fairly well at this circuit. Rosberg has a best finish of 5th and three points finishes in six Suzuka starts. In five Suzuka starts, Lewis has one podium, four top fives and one DNF.

The darkhorse this weekend has to be Sebastian Vettel. He has an amazing track record at Suzuka with four wins and one third place in five starts. The Red Bull is believed to be near the front of the field in terms of downforce and that’s certainly one thing that really helps in Suzuka given all the medium and high-speed corners making up the track. The Mercedes should win but Vettel is the most capable of pouncing on an opportunity.


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