Archive for the ‘F1’ Category

Sadly, this week’s build-up to the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai is dominated instead by talk of an altogether different race: the F1 GP of Bahrain scheduled to take place the following week. But will it actually happen?

Bahrain dropped off the calendar at short notice in 2011 after the outbreak of civil unrest left teams feeling unsafe in the country and the UK government advising against non-essential visits which in turn made key factors like insurance coverage for the teams, staff and equipment a serious problem. In the end the Bahraini organisers themselves were put in the position of requesting a postponement that eventually became an outright cancellation.

Will the same happen in 2012?

There certainly seems to be pressure building behind the scenes with more and more F1 personalities such as former world champion Damon Hill speaking out against holding the Bahrain Grand Prix while unrest is still a serious problem in the country. Many fans have also been vocal about holding the race under these circumstances, saying that it’s immoral for F1 to hold the race in these circumstances, that the sport has to show an ethical backbone and cannot just remain silent about the suppression of opposition in the country.

While team managers are not speaking out publicly, they’ve been anonymously reported in the press as being very against holding the race in a country where the presence of the support could be perceived as support for the ruling royal family and therefore opposed by protesters. According to the media reports, teams have issued their staff with two sets of tickets out of China for this weekend: one going to Bahrain, and the other routing home via Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Oman in the event of cancellation.

To be honest, I’m as uncomfortable as anyone with the prospect of going to Bahrain and the whole thing going disastrously wrong. If something does happen then it could be the defining moment for the sport of our age. But I’m not really sure that there’s any real choice.

First of all, the ‘moral’ aspect, that F1 shouldn’t go to a country suppressing its population. This really does require F1 to take an ethical standpoint on the situation, and what expertise and standing does a motorsport competition have to do that? If the UK government labelled the country immoral, unethical or evil then that would be another thing, but it’s not for Bernie Ecclestone, Jean Todt or the rest of the F1 scene to hand down judgements on countries recognised internationally and still regarded as legitimate trade partners by the UK and everywhere else.

If we’re expected to take this stand because of the suppression of opposition and the lack of legitimate democracy in the country, then surely there should be even more qualms about this weekend’s race in China? And if we don’t want the sport to go anywhere where it’s not going to be fulsomely welcomed by all the local population, then how can we justify going to a highly split Circuit of the Americas in Austin, in a country that as a whole is at the very best profoundly indifferent to whether F1 ever again turns a wheel in the US?

What about the operational angle? The Grand Prix is a sitting duck for protests, meaning that the Bahrain government will have to ramp up security to an extreme degree or face the appalling prospect of someone breaking into the facility to stage a suicidal protest of a terrorist attack. In many ways this is the most terrifying, dreadful prospect facing F1 in ten days’ time. But if cast-iron security was really a must-have for sporting events, then we certainly wouldn’t be holding the Olympics in the UK in 2012. Just this weekend we saw the chaos that a single person was able to cause to the Boat Race, and there have been security breaches at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix in years past. Does that mean the UK should be struck off the calendar because it can’t assure the safety of drivers? What about Brazil, with its notorious crime around the São Paulo area that has seen team personnel and even drivers robbed and car-jacked in recent years on their way to and from the circuit – should we say adiós to Interlagos?

And then – perhaps more importantly in the circumstances – is the business side. The Bahrain government has invested huge sums into the Sakhir International Circuit, all based on the contract that assured them the Grand Prix races to recoup their money from. If F1 cancels out of the races, then who is going to pay for the ticket sale refunds and pick up the rest of the tab for the original construction? Bahrain certainly won’t want to and it would be amazing if their arrangement with the FIA didn’t give them recourse to sue F1 for breach of contract. Are team bosses and the FIA really happy to pay up tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds? What about other motor racing events scheduled for the year such as the GP2 support race and the FIA World Endurance Championship? And how are the fans going to react when it emerges that the FIA is handing over huge sums to the Bahrain government for the cancellation, which will merely help it fund its current suppression activities in return for nothing in exchange except our own self-righteous sense of moral superiority?

It’s for all these arguments that I still find it hard to really believe that the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain will be postponed or cancelled, despite the building pressure from within and also externally from the media and politicians. Unless something happens in the meantime to turn a chronic unrest situation into an acute crisis, there simply isn’t the one overriding factor to stop the event from proceeding. Last year that acute factor was the breaking out of mass protests, including occupation of the area around the hotel where many F1 and GP2 teams were staying, and the Bahraini army action taken against the encampment that left teams with little choice except to catch the first flight out. It even meant the Bahrain authorities had to back down and forced into requesting the cancellation, which left them holding the financial fall-out as well. But this year so far at least there is no such clear and immediate danger on which to base the decision, which makes it a lot more difficult to work out the right thing to do.

If nothing else emerges in Bahrain in the next few days, the momentum and inertia of carrying on with the original plan will tend to win out over the effort of changing course. Much as I can’t say I’m personally happy with that decision or with the situation as a whole, to be honest, it’s the reality as things stand.

Lest anyone think that I’m an amoral apologist for foreign regimes, let me just wrap up this piece with one final comment. Rather than be placed in such ethical and business dilemmas in the future, how about the FIA and FOM simply look properly before they draft up any new contracts in future, and evaluate what they’re leaping into before getting dazzled by the dollar signs on the cheques being waved under their noses? We’ve seen money win out over holding the race at much-loved venues in France, Germany and Italy; even the incomparable Spa-Francorchamps is threatened with relegation to bi-annual status in order to clear the way for F1 heading to Russia in the near future, which says it all about the governing bodies’ priorities at the moment. I for one would be very happy never to have such a crisis situation ever again in what – for all its inevitable business aspects – is really still supposed to be a sport at heart.

Yes, that’s a hollow laugh you hear as I sign off.

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Although I do most of my writing on motorsports now over at Crash.net, I don’t get to do “op-ed” pieces there and give our views on things. Happily, that’s what a blog like this is for.

So without further ado, a few notes on how Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying went compared with expectations and now updated with notes following the Grand Prix – and what it all might means for the teams for the forthcoming season…

Red Bull

I’d expected the competition to cut the gap to the world champions, but still thought Red Bull would be the class of the field. I spent most of Saturday waiting for them to kick into high gear and clinch the pole, only to find that someone had forgotten to install the high gear button after all. That’s a real surprise – I’d almost say a shock – and unless they’ve got improvements coming on line or there were one-off reasons for their average showing in Melbourne so far, I’d say we’re in for a real seismic shift in the F1 line-up. I’m not sure I give much weight to Webber out-qualifying Vettel in Australia, but the Aussie’s not going to exit the team without a fight in 2012.

Post-race update: More encouraging in race trim, and almost a match for the McLarens during the GP with the exception of the opening laps where the Woking cars opened up such a huge initial lead over the Red Bulls. It confirms that this should be a close season and no one should be counting Vettel out just yet – as if we ever did.

McLaren

The closest thing there is to ‘my’ team on the F1 grid, I confess that I was worried coming into Australia that the team had badly missed a vital trick. The fact that they had managed to design a car without the horrific ‘step nose’ deemed unavoidable by the likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn made me think that McLaren had sacrificed performance for aesthetics (and to be honest, I was rather on their side in the debate.) I certainly didn’t expect them to cruise pretty comfortably to a front row lock-out in Oz. Could this be the year that Hamilton and Button have a private fight for the world championship? That’d be nice!

Post-race update: Wow. The initial race pace was something else, and while it settled back into something more on the level of Red Bull, it still seemed like an easy win for Button. A strangely downbeat Hamilton at the end raises fears that he still hasn’t got his race brain back together again after the confidence-sapping 2011 season.

Ferrari

I was pretty sure that Ferrari were in dire straits from everything that came out of pre-season testing. Even so, it was still shocking to see just how dreadful the car was on the track in Melbourne, and their slump to 12th and 16th on the grid appears sadly about right. Alonso is doing his best with an evil-handling car, and his talent is frequently making the Ferrari look better than it really is; Massa, on the other hand, seems to be confirming that he’s sadly past his sell-by date. This looks like being one tough year for the poor Tifosi.

Post-race update: Alonso continued to hugely flatter the car, and fifth place is almost entirely down to his efforts. It’s rather like the feat Casey Stoner managed in MotoGP to make the Ducati look acceptable. However it was a dismal start to the year for Massa and the gossips are already talking about a mid-season driver change at Maranello.

Mercedes

Mercedes went through testing with a certain quiet assurance oozing from the team and their drivers. Friday practice appeared to confirm it, and it seemed that just maybe Ross Brawn and his technical staff might have pulled off another decisive innovation that might see them charge away into an unassailable lead of the championship in just the way they did with Button and Barrichello in 2009. All that said, 4th and 7th on the grid now seems somewhat less than hoped for, so perhaps it’s a mirage. It’s interesting that old man Schumacher is looking stronger than young Rosberg, and I wouldn’t be surprised that if there is a break-out performance to come from the Mercedes camp that it’s not led from the front by the multiple world champion in one last bid for glory.

Post-race update: So. No secret weapon anywhere under the hood. Possibly the biggest disappointment of the race weekend, and looking very far back from the McLaren and Red Bull cars.

Lotus F1

Lotus F1 always look good in pre-season testing and put on all the best fighting talk; but time and again we’ve seem them deflate the minute the cars hit the track for the start of the season, and then slowly wither away over the course of the year. I was rather expecting the same thing here, but instead we got two completely bipolar extremes: there was Raikkonen’s shocking performance on his return to the sport that saw him fail to get through to Q3, far worse than I expected; and then Grosjean stunning up the other end with a scintillating third place on the grid. One or other of these performances is a one-off blip, an outlier: the question is, which?

Post-race update: The race was another bipolar experience, with Grosjean’s rookie status showing when he was punted out of the race on lap 2, but Raikkonen playing a blinder at times as he charged back from the disappointing qualifying to finish in seventh place. You have to say, the car has something to it this year – it only remains for the drivers to consistently tap into it.

Force India

If I’m honest, I had no expectations of Force India – and I still don’t. Despite the presence of the likeable and very talented driver line-up, the team just seems to fall into the blur of the average midfield for me. Hulkenberg did as well as I’d have possibly have expected for them in ninth while di Resta apparently hit outlap traffic at just the wrong moment and slumped to a disappointing 15th. But to be honest, it’s hard to see them doing much more than picking up low-hanging points from time to time in 2012.

Post-race update: Still anonymous, even though some last-lap skirmishes popped Paul di Resta into an unexpected points finish. By then, Hulkenberg was long gone (out on the very first lap) and there really didn’t seem any pep or energy to the team as a whole at the start of 2012.

Sauber

Sauber just seem to be slipping a little bit further back every season, and 2012 looks set to continue to the trend. Kobayashi managed 13th for the Melbourne grid while gearbox problems stopped Sergio Perez coming out at all in Q2 and the resulting penalty will drop him to the back row. It’s a shame: team, manager and drivers are all very likeable, but there’s a chronic malaise threatening to settle over the operation.

Post-race update: I take it back, and admit I was a little harsh on Sauber. They still have it where it counts thanks to zesty race performances from Perez and Kobayashi, a mixture of interestingly different race strategies and some on-track fireworks that makes the team consistently one of the most enjoyable and interesting outfits to watch. Both drivers in the top ten, they have to be happy with that.

Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso are trying to shake off that very same sense of encroaching torpor as Sauber, and they’ve done it by firing their previous driver line-up and bringing in Ricciardo (who sneaked into the final ten in Oz qualifying) and Vergne (11th) in what’s billed as an X-Factor style audition to replace Mark Webber in the senior Red Bull team. Some impressive Friday practice runs made us think that they might have something strong for 2012, but I’m unconvinced and expect them to settle into midfield anonymity once more a few races in.

Post-race update: Not really seeing any signs of a quantum leap forward for the Red Bull B-team; it seems fitting that they ended up ninth and 11th, sandwiching the leading Force India. They didn’t do anything particularly eye-catching in the race, which is to say that they didn’t do much wrong but they didn’t do anything particularly encouraging either.

Williams

After a wretched 2011, Williams could hardly have got much worse in 2012. But perhaps no one was expecting the sort of performance that they pulled out of the bag at Melbourne, Pastor Maldonado shrugging off the “pay driver” tag to put in a blistering performance that saw him into the final ten. Bruno Senna also impressed over the two days in Melbourne so far. It might be a little early to say it, but these look like potential green shoots of recovery and that Williams may soon once again be at least the “best of the rest.”

Post-race update: Wow. That run by Pastor Maldonado was astonishing, and confirmed that Williams weren’t just showboating in qualifying but have something genuinely strong here. It’s a shame that a first lap incident pretty much sidelined Senna, and then that last lap accident for Maldonado was very painful on a number of levels, but there’s a huge amount to be happy and excited about at Williams for the first time in a long while.

Caterham

I had genuinely high hopes for Caterham, thinking that they would break out of the ‘new teams ghetto’ that has seen them routinely stuck in the last three rows of the grid. I was, frankly, very disappointed when they showed no such evidence of any forward movement in Melbourne and duly finished qualifying in 19th and 20th place. Chances are that means they’re going to spend 2012 as they did 2011: fighting the battle of the wooden spoon with HRT and Marussia.

Post-race update: Uh oh. Not only did they show no great improvement in their race pace, but their reliability (so good and the source of their strength last year) seems to have taken a major hit with both cars retiring within minutes of each other with steering problems. Hopefully this is an issue that can be quickly addressed, or else they’re going to go backwards in their battle of the newbie teams.

HRT

It can’t be any surprise that HRT won’t even be on the starting grid in Australia on Sunday. They’ve had barely no runs in the car and the whole pre-season preparation has had an air of barely suppressed panic. The fact that Narain Karthikeyan seemed to go out of his way to hold everyone up in qualifying made it all-but certain that the stewards would decide that this was exactly the sort of unacceptable performance that the 107% rule is designed to eliminate and so neither car will be allowed to start. Frankly, I wouldn’t wonder that the team aren’t a little relieved that they dont’ have to race and don’t just see the whole Australian leg as their first testing session of the year.

Post-race update: Erm … Yes. Best move on.

Marussia

Marussia should be in much the same dismal state as HRT, being the last team to get their car through the mandatory pre-season FIA crash tests which has meant no test runs at all. So it’s actually genuinely quietly impressive that they showed up, got both cars out on track, avoided any dramas and duly set times within 107% and make the grid on Sunday. That’s no small achievement and the team should feel pretty proud of itelf. Of course, they’re still going to spend 2012 filling out the back row of the grid and the bottom spots on every race classification, sadly.

Post-race update: Okay, so they were firmly at the back of the field all afternoon (save for a battle-damaged Bruno Senna) and never troubled anyone on pace. But I’d almost say that Marussia were the biggest surprise of the day, because having had no testing and barely scraped through the mandatory crash tests, both cars probed bullet-proof in terms of reliability and finished the race in a perfectly creditable 14th and 15th. Such an achievement is nothing to be sneered it, and they deserve a pat on the back and a large beer tonight for what they’ve done here.

Conclusions

So what are we looking at?

Certainly it seems that my fears that McLaren sacrificed performance for style were unfounded. It’s also great that they’re not starting off the season on the technical backfront, as has been their habit in recent years. If Sunday confirms this then McLaren are looking stronger than they have for some time, and the only question is which of their drivers – Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button – will end up as world champion.

But don’t count Red Bull out – I’m sure there is more to come from them. I’m also very wary of Mercedes, who I still think are threatening to break out a major surprise that could change the whole game.

It’s possible that Lotus will be joining this fight at the front, but I doubt it. I also fear that the notoriously difficult team atmosphere at Lotus will lead to another ill-tempered break-up with a driver (Kimi Raikkonen is not going to stand for being mistreated or ill-served.) But Grosjean could yet prove to be the unexpected joker in the pack that changes everything: in his hands lies the answer to whether Lotus are duking it out among the top four or merely skirmishing in the midfield, probably with Williams as their main contenders – which would be a major bounceback from the edge for that venerable team.

Of course, normal health warnings apply: the dataset for these conclusions is far too limited. Everything could change after the Australian Grand Prix which offers the first test of the durability and reliability of the cars, which could be the deciding factor in 2012. And it could all be different again in Malaysia, let alone what the teams get on with developing between now and their return to Europe which is when the major upgrades will start.

But for now, lovers of McLaren’s beautiful car versus the ugly step-nosed sisters can take heart, and dream of triumphs and successes for one night at least.

Post-race update: And they can carry on dreaming for the whole of the week, after a hugely impressive display especially by Jenson Button. A poor start and an unfortunately timed safety car did for Hamilton’s hopes and I’m worried about his mental outlook at this point, and Sebastian Vettel can’t be counted out by any means, but it’s a great start for the Woking squad.

F1 driver Adrian Sutil has been convicted on charges of grievous bodily harm arising from an incident in a night club in Shanghai in April 2011.

Former Force India F1 driver Adrian Sutil has been found guilty on charges of grievous bodily harm against Eric Lux, the CEO of Lotus F1 team owners Genii Capital, arising from an incident in a Shanghai nightclub on April 17, 2011.

Sutil has received an 18-month suspended sentence at the end of a two-day trial in Munuch, and also been ordered to pay 200,000 euros (US$262,200) in fines that will be paid to charities of the court’s choosing.

Sutil and Lux were guests at a party to celebrate Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the 2011 Chinese Grand Prix when the incident occurred. Lux needed two dozen stitches after receiving neck injuries from a champagne glass in Sutil’s hand.

“I’m terribly sorry. I never wanted what happened there to happen,” Sutil told the German court on the first day of the trial, insisting that the injury had been totally “unintentional and accidental.” He added, “I regret the incident very much. It’s a lesson for me.”

CCTV footage from the club had initially appeared to support Sutil’s claims that he was reacting instinctively to push away the other man who had apparently lunged towards him during a heated exchange, and that he only intended to throw the drink at Lux and not to cause any physical harm. However, Sutil’s actions were still deemed sufficiently dangerous and irresponsible enough by the court to result in conviction.

“Pushing someone away with a glass is adventurous and not in line with our experience of life,” argued the prosecutor in the case.

“The defendant knew that he had this glass in his hand,” agreed the judge in her final ruling. “The glass was moving in an intended direction.”

Sutil has previously issued a formal written apology for the incident, but Lux insisted that he had never received the face-to-face apology that he had demanded, which is why he had continued to press on with the legal charges. “A phone call is not enough,” said Lux.

Sutil responded by saying that he had “tried everything” to settle the case out of court, including the offer of a charitable donation and “tens of millions”, but had been rebuffed by Lux.

It’s unclear whether the verdict and the sentence will have an effect on Sutil’s F1 superlicense that enables him to drive an F1 car.

Sutil lost his race seat at Force India to Nico Hulkenberg at the end of the 2011 season and is yet to find a new role in the sport. A Ferrari test driver job has been speculated, but the uncertainty of the trial and now the verdict will not have helped him in his endeavours to get back to active duty.

Sutil’s friend and fellow F1 driver Lewis Hamilton, although he had been present in the club at the time the incident took place, did not give testimony after being excused due to McLaren team commitments.

[Article originally written in July and posted here as a ‘how wrong can you get’ example, since the now-released actual news about Sky’s F1 coverage has revealed an almost compete buy-out of the existing BBC F1 coverage personnel. There’s a quick update review at the end.]

The deal is done, the papers are signed, and no matter how much weeping and wailing and rending of garments there is, pontificating further about the BBC/Sky deal over F1 coverage is rather pointless.

So let’s turn instead to the next phase of the fallout from the decision: what exactly will the coverage look like in 2012, specifically with regard to the presenting teams? There’s some interesting insider/background info to this on the blog of James Allen, who ironically knows all too well about this sort of thing having been the ITV lead commentator in 2008 when that channel walked away from the F1 contract and left him out of a job.

Allen’s insider info raises some interesting scenarios, specifically suggesting that the race commentary would be shared between both channels to ensure an overall consistency for fans and to stop it feeling jarringly “choppy” as races switch from BBC to Sky and back again. It will also make it easier to sign up the right people as there will be a full season to cover live and yet still with a BBC presence. Presumably this would constitute what till now has been referred to as the “world feed commentary”: whether it’s a BBC- or a Sky-produced affair is rather a distinction without a difference, although given that only Sky is proving all 20 races live I think it’s a given that it will formally fall under Sky’s auspices.

On the one hand that makes a lot of sense; on the other, you wonder what Sky gain out of it when for 100 minutes ten times a year they will be showing exactly the same sound and pictures as the BBC … and presumably getting totally hammered in the ratings. It’s not a great comparison they’re setting themselves up for, no matter how much it helps them pitch the other ten races they have exclusively live to potential subscribers. But still, if that’s the decision they’ve taken, it’s actually a good one for the fans I think.

And that leads us to the question of: who will form that commentary team? It’s a question with an obvious answer – of course they should sign up Martin Brundle and David Coulthard straight away, no brainer, and I suspect they will do just that. The only fly in the ointment is that from Brundle’s dry comments on the subject he doesn’t sound like he’s wild about what’s happening, and given that he was also reported to be disenchanted last year and close to walking away (until mollified with the departure of Jonathan Legard allowing him to step up to the lead role while also insisting on his mate DC taking up the shotgun seat) one wonders if he really has any desire to go through what would be for him the second media channel refugee migration in just three years. Perhaps he might just decide that doing this for 14 years is quite long enough and it’s time to move on, regardless of the inducements floated in his direction?

If Brundle does stay they he would almost certainly insist Coulthard stays as well as part of the deal; conversely, if he left, I’m not sure Coulthard has yet established himself well enough to be wanted by Sky and the BBC to stay without Brundle. That’s not to say DC has done a bad job – on the contrary, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how their pairing has worked out against my sceptical expectations. But they’re a job lot, both or neither.

If neither, then … who? Names from the past (James Allen and Jonathan Legard) can be discounted. The one exception to that ban – given his sparkling showing in a recent 5live Saturday practice session – is Murray Walker. If he was remotely feasible for the job then Sky would do literally anything to coax him back; but he isn’t, no matter the fond wishes of F1 fans, and we need to look elsewhere.

If this were a purely a Sky affair then it’s likely that they would be looking at the pairing of former F1 driver John Watson with Ben Edwards (the latter currently working on ITV4’s BTCC coverage and the nearest thing we have to a natural heir to Murray’s famous over-caffeinated style.) They provided coverage for the short-lived, ill-fated “enhanced” F1 Digital+ pay-per-view service from FOM in 2002, and were again paired up on Sky Sport’s coverage of the also short-lived wannabe F1 rival, the “A1GP World Cup of Motorsport”. They would be fine, and a reasonably safe and proven pair of hands. And personally, I’m a big fan of Edwards and reckon he deserves a shot at the biggest seat in motorsports commentary that there is.

A possible cost-saving tactic would be to simply use 5live’s David Croft and Anthony Davidson across both TV and radio outputs. They’ve demonstrated that they can make this simultaneous TV/radio commentary work impressively well with their years of providing coverage of the practice sessions that worked just as well on the red button visual coverage as well as on the radio. It’s not easy, but it would really help slash costs: the probable show-stopper is Davidson’s still very-active and successful racing career which means he is unavailable for all the season’s races, which is not a huge problem for 5live but might well be for the TV sporting jewel in the crown.

Outside the commentary team, however, what about the presenter? The Allen insider info suggests that BBC and Sky would each have their own, different presenting team (although interestingly they would share broadcast production facilities on-site.) Would this likely to be continue to be Jake Humphrey and Eddie Irvine?

I suspect not. It will be difficult to front a pared-down operation after the conspicuous success of the last three years without feeling like it’s a comedown, so I would expect Humphrey – far too much of a BBC man to want to move to Sky – to return into the heart of BBC Sport, his reputation greatly increased from his success on F1, to take a major, leading role in the corporation’s overall sports broadcasting and perhaps particularly in football which is still (one suspects) his true passion. Good luck to him, he’s earned it, and we certainly couldn’t begrudge it after the effort and enthusiasm he’s put into F1 since 2009.

Nor do I see Eddie Jordan staying – he’s just not the type to want to stick with a “day job” for too long. He probably took the slot with the BBC as a bit of fun in the first place and has stuck around because it’s a nice team – even though at teams he hasn’t seemed entirely uncomfortable with the joker role he’s been slotted into and expected to play. I doubt he anticipated still doing this job even beyond a single year. He’s certainly not main host material – he would surely hate that constriction – so I expect that he’ll take the opportunity to move on.

Which leaves the BBC with … Interestingly, Ted Kravitz, a man who is far too good as television presenter material to be stuck away in pit lane the whole time. That rather suggests than the optimum solution for the BBC would be to promote Kravitz to presenter of the cut-down BBC coverage while also acting as pit lane reporter in association with someone else like Lee Mackenzie or Jenny Gow, in much the same way that Matt Roberts now fronts the MotoGP coverage for the channel while also covering the pit lane alongside Azi Farni when Charlie Cox and Steve Parrish are doing the race commentary. Indeed, the very much pared-down MotoGP model might prove exactly the sort of thing the BBC are aiming for in their F1 coverage next year.

When it comes to the Sky presenting team, frankly anything goes – all bets are off. The channel has never had this sort of international series to cover before and it will be new ground for them. Usually their presence at overseas events consists of taking a home broadcasters’ feed and then having someone in the Sky Sports studios topping and tailing it with some studio guests, but it’s hard to see them getting away with that for F1 – or indeed wanting to. After the investment and opportunity that’s landed in their lap with this deal, they’ll want to be seen to conspicuously excel and at least match if not exceed the BBC coverage of recent years and the ITV coverage that preceded it.

So that means having a presenting team on the ground in whatever country the Grand Prix is from that week – and that’s a big commitment, from the channel (in terms of expense and production support services) and from the presenters. Normally Sky have Keith Huewen as their go-to guy for motorsports programmes, but having him jetting all over the world might (a) not be something he wants, and/or (b) would screw up all the other programmes he’s currently fronting for them.

Failing that it’s hard to know just where Sky will go for a presenter – anymore than we saw Jake Humphrey coming as the BBC’s main man in 2009. Sky Sports previously signed up Georgie Thompson as the anchor for their A1GP coverage, but she never really developed the gravitas or believability in the role. If having a female main host is important to Sky, then they would need to look to someone more credible – like ex-MotoGP host Suzi Perry, although her other filming commitments (for the Gadget Show on Channel 5 for example) would presumably be a problem with the international travel aspect.

Mark Blundell – tongue-in-cheek I rather suspect – put in a Twitter plea to be considered for the role of pundit in the new regime, picking up from his ITV days; Tony Jardine would be another obvious potential candidate, having popped up on Sky Sports in various programmes in such a capacity. Eddie Jordan would be an outside bet, but he would probably be rather expensive, definitely unpredictable, and most of all Sky will surely want to make their own mark on the team rather than take the BBC’s hand-me-downs as it might be unfairly seen.

Whatever team Sky decide upon and put together, it’s likely to be the best that money can by – but will nonetheless still find surprisingly stiff competition even from a radically slimmed down “Kravitz plus one” BBC presence, which many fans will stick to and show loyalty toward regardless of the merits of Sky’s offering.

It will be an interesting time in F1 coverage. Granted, it’s an “interest” that most of us could have done without and preferred not to have to contemplate, preferring instead the BBC status quo. But that’s not going to happen, and so we’re subject to the Chinese curse of living in interesting F1 times – for better or for worse.

Quick review – December 2011

So, did this piece get anything much right?

I probably underestimated Martin Brindle’s claim to be the ‘voice of F1’ – it’s clear that Sky really did see him as important to the package as ITV see Murray Walker back in the 90s. Brundle’s been getting a lot of flak for his ‘defection’, but fair play to him. I think his initially sour comments about the deal were more directed at the BBC keeping everyone in the dark and then dropping it on them during a race weekend were what really got to him, so in hindsight it’s less surprising to see him to Skywards after all.

I’m rather surprised that David Croft has gone too. I thought that Brundle would want the lead commentator spot (as he’s had this year on the BBC) but this development suggests that he hasn’t found it as much to his liking as he thought, and would prefer dropping back into his more familiar analyst role with Croft selected as the new straight man. I’m very sad to see Croft depart the BBC and I happen to really like him as a commentator – I frequently elected to listen to the Radio 5 Live commentary during the race for him and Anthony Davidson a the best pairing going – but I have to say this is a good move by Sky and that the Croft/Brundle line-up is a very good one.

And Davidson himself! More for the practice sessions – and I’ve always loved his rapport with Croft for those more laid-back broadcasts – leaving Brundle to step in for qualifying and the race, but that actually mirrors the way I’ve listened to the commentary in recent times anyway. It’s worrying how well tailored this commentary line-up proves to be for me.

I underestimated Sky’s determination to lure away Ted Kravitz as well – that’s a real loss to the BBC line-up, and I genuinely thought that they could have built up their on-site team around Kravitz but clearly the money didn’t work out. A shame, he’ll be missed, but he’s got himself a great gig including co-presenting a weekly magazine programme on the new Sky F1 channel.

Apparently the suggest to have the Radio 5 Live commentary feed work on TV as well as the radio was indeed considered, but ultimately discarded, which I feel is a lost opportunity to do something genuinely new while actually saving some money. And the joint commentary across BBC and Sky looks to have been a complete red herring (it always seemed to me a rather odd idea at the time, to be honest.)

The surprises on the BBC side are that Coulthard isn’t decamping with Brundle, and that Eddie Jordan is also sticking with the BBC. Are they bound by existing contracts or is this a genuine choice on their parts? Neither is cheap and you would have thought that the belt-tightening BBC would have wanted a change here, too. Maybe when the extent of the rest of the F1 talent raid by Sky became clear, they had to hold on to what they could of the old team.

It’s great that Jake Humphrey is staying on. He’s come a long way since his first days on the job, fresh out of Children’s BBC academy, trying to work out which way up F1 went. He’s now on top of his game and was clearly in Sky’s sights for the main presenting role, but I always figured he was too much of a BBC man (especially with the 2012 Olympics coverage coming up) to jump ship. The only doubt was whether a half share of F1 would be enough to satisfy him after the Bafta years, but I’m glad it is and that he’s not scarpering off for the halls of football coverage just yet.

Who will commentate for the BBC? I guess now they know who isn’t staying, they can get around to signing up a few people. I still would love to see Ben Edwards be the lead commentator for the channel, perhaps alongside Coulthard; and as for radio, it’ll probably go to the very likeable and extremely knowledgeable Maurice Hamilton, who would be fine if they can get him a good sidekick to spark some chemistry with. Jonathan Legard has also been mentioned as a possibility (it’s unclear whether for TV or radio, as he’s worked in both roles for the BBC in the past) but I would earnestly hope not, and given how he was bundled out at the end of 2010 I’d be surprised if he wanted to return into that fold quite so soon.

Will I be swapping to Sky? Well – if Virgin Media doesn’t have a massive falling out with Sky and not carry the new Sky F1 channel in the meantime, then yes, I probably will. But I’ll also watch the BBC coverage.

My first reaction when I heard the news this morning that the BBC had lost exclusive rights to F1 and would show only half of next year’s Grand Prix events live, while Sky would show the entire season, was one of dismay and outrage.

Certainly when it comes to timing, announcing a deal which hands one of the currently most loathed media companies (News Corp, which owns 39% of BSkyB) one of the sporting crown jewels was spectacularly inopportune.

Now, however, I’ve calmed down a bit. At my emotional core I’m still seething, but the logical side of my brain is asserting itself and starting to point out: this could have been even much, much worse. And sadly, probably will be down the line.

The warning signs have been there for some time, ever since the Sunday Times had a story suggesting that the BBC wanted out of the F1 contract as soon as possible. We rather dismissed it at the time as being News Corp mischief making, but it turns out that they were nearer to the truth than we gave them credit for. Hey, even a broken media organisation is right twice a day, it seems.

I think it’s clear now that the BBC did come very close indeed to just returning the keys to the F1 paddock to Bernie Ecclestone and walking away completely, much as ITV did at the end of the 2008 season. The reason is totally financial and down to the high license costs charged by Ecclestone’s media rights company for the coverage (I’ve heard various figures estimates from this, but they seem to be around £40 to £60m per annum.)

Given that the BBC is being squeezed (by the government cutting the license fee on advice from, among others, the Murdoch family and businesses – funny cycle that, isn’t it?) for cash and looking for savings anywhere it can find up to and including any cash lost down the back of the sofa, it’s no surprise that they should see such a whopping expenditure line on the accounts and quickly come to the decision that it simply has to go: it’s not unlike Ford Motor Company looking at its employee wages and seeing Eddie Irvine getting paid more than anyone else, and deciding: this F1 thing must stop.

I suspect that even someone as business- and monetarily-inclined as Ecclestone realised that losing the BBC’s backing and prestige for F1 would be a disaster for him and for the sport from which he makes his living, especially as there was no one else to turn to in the free-to-air market to fill the gap. ITV certainly weren’t interested in returning, Channel 4 have their own money problems, and Channel 5 – well, it’s possible given their tie-up with Richard Desmond, but it’s still really out of the channel’s financial reach and not even their target demographic. Even if they had bid for it, it would be a surprise if they lasted two years before walking away themselves under the heavy load that F1 coverage responsibility now confers.

But Ecclestone had already said he wanted the sport to remain on free-to-air (and the teams and the key sponsors definitely had an expectation of this being the case to maintain the sport’s the and sponsor’s visibility – there’s even a suggestion that the all-important Concorde Agreement requires it, otherwise Ecclestone is in breach of contract himself) and so just throwing it open to the Sky Sports premium satellite/cable subscription channel wasn’t open either.

When it comes down to it, this emergency compromise that has been reached is probably the best that could be done in the circumstances: free-to-air retains half the live Grand Prix events and ensures fans will still get to see extensive coverage of the rest through highlights packages and radio coverage on 5live; while Sky presumably carries most of the financial load by virtue of being able to claim to be the only place to see the whole F1 season from now on. Sky would probably rather not be sharing the coverage of half the races with the BBC but they’ll see it as a “free advert on the BBC” for their product for the other 10 races that people will have to sign up for. It’s not a bad product placement deal for Sky, all things considered.

This sort of split coverage of sport is not in fact unusual. The football rights are fragmented across multiple networks, while even the international rugby union rights were split with Sky Sports having all the England Six Nations matches while the BBC had the remainder. In the US this is even more common, with IndyCar coverage shared between the ABC broadcast network and the cable channel Versus (and interestingly, fans seem to deride the ABC races and lament that Versus can’t do them all!) while NASCAR splits the 36 races of the season into three lots of 12 between three different networks, and there’s talks about come of those being further offloaded onto a cable channel such as SPEED next season. Again, it’s all because the broadcast rights in each case are simply too expensive now for any one single network to sustain and justify them across the whole year.

Truth is, though, that this BBC/Sky compromise deal is a classic BBC attempt at a solution to please everyone and answer all the critics, which will instead do exactly the opposite – leave them under attack from all sides and satisfy precisely no one. The F1 fans will be outraged and outspoken and pour scorn and vitriol on the Corporation; while the anti-F1 brigade will remain incensed that the Beeb is still squandering any money at all on a rich man’s plaything. Eventually the BBC will give up and walk away from F1 completely. Until then, the BBC has neatly positioned itself in the middle of No Man’s Land where both sides have equal opportunity to shoot and shell it to pieces – a familiar story for the Corporation.

It’s amazing that this decision should be announced when it has been, shortly after the BBC F1 coverage won a Bafta (ironically, ITV’s final F1 race coverage also won a Bafta before they walked away in 2009 …) and the recent Canadian race came close to a 50 share at times (that is, half the total number of people watching the TV were watching the BBC – unheard of domination in this day and age of fractured media.) So much for dismissing F1 as a “niche sport” it seems, but that argument has simply been muscled aside.

Probably the most depressing thought it what the BBC coverage will look like from 2012 onwards. They will hardly be able to afford the sort of quality of broadcast line-up when they’ll only be covering ten races live; will Martin Brundle and David Coulthard want to be involved in a half-arsed season coverage? Will Jake Humphrey want to continue fronting a show that is now overshadowed by Sky and little more than a shop window for the satellite channel’s fare?

Indeed, the BBC will probably want to cut costs still further – cut the preshow, and grid walks, the interviews and just fly over a commentator to do the job, leave the fancy stuff to Sky. Think of the cost savings on top of the licensing money they’ll save by no longer having to have dedicated camera crews and multiple presenters. In fact, surely the commentary can be done from a studio in London … ? (Actually, if it comes to that level, I hope they have the good sense to have 5live’s commentators David Croft and Anthony Davidson simply take over, since the 5live coverage continues under the new deal and hopefully they will be broadly unchanged and unaffected.)

What about Brundle, Coulthard, Eddie Irvine, Ted Kravitz and even Jake Humphrey? They now found themselves in the same situation as Murray Walker in 1996 or James Allen (and indeed Brundle himself) in 2008 when the decisions of their networks cast their own professional futures into sudden doubt. In Murray Walker’s case, ITV commendably realised very quickly that he was essential to the success of their new investment: while Murray had immediately thought he was out of a job and on the scrapheap, instead he suddenly found he was perhaps the most important and sought-after man in sporting journalism.

Martin Brundle, despite having been associated with F1 coverage since 1997, has only just stepped up to the role of main commentator and has no similar Murray-esque claims to be the “voice of F1” so he’s not going to have the same prospects of job security. Indeed he’s already tweeted that he’s out of contract at the end of 2011 and is “not impressed” by the news announced today so it seems he’s not keen either with the part-time season on the BBC or moving to Sky. But who knows – Sky may be as canny as ITV were 14 years ago and decide that some Brundle continuity is vital to securing the transition of the fans to the satellite broadcaster, and start to woo the former F1 driver with an offer he can’t refuse. Or maybe they’ll simply go with their in-house staff, some of whom are excellent (Keith Huewen for example has been outstanding hosting IndyCar and NASCAR on Sky Sport) but many of whom are really quite mediocre.

There’s no doubt that among the biggest losers in all this are the committed fans of Formula 1, or at least those who are unwilling or unable to take up Sky Sports subscriptions next season. But I fear the biggest loser of all is the sport of F1 itself, which has just crossed a rubicon of sorts that takes it on a one-way trip to the margins. In time, F1 fans will decrease, new generations of fans will not be exposed to the sport. It will weaken, and – driven by the costs of the sport – will then collapse under its own hubris, unable to fund its continuance as a minor niche interest on the sidelines.

Bernie Ecclestone may not be around by that time – not even he is immortal, we believe. But come that final Grand Prix, few will forget that it was his hand that set the stage and made the final demise of F1 possible and – indeed – inevitable.

The European Grand Prix on the streets at Valencia offered much to interest fans, and yet somehow everyone – even drivers and commentators – came away deflated and struggling not to use the word ‘boring’.

It was always possibly – likely, even – that after the dazzling Canadian Grand Prix a fortnight ago, whatever followed it would be an anticlimax and provoke a bit of the blues. Add to that the calendar’s least promising circuit for exciting races and you’re almost assured that everyone will be muttering that F1 is back to being dull and boring again.

The writing was on the wall early on in the Valencia race, when Jenson Button found himself behind Nico Rosberg off the starting grid and struggled to get past him. He deployed all the current generation F1 toys – KERS and DRS – and they made precisely no difference. In the end it was an old-fashioned lunge by Button into turn 2 on lap 6 that pulled it off.

But it set the tone for the race – that despite all the recent improvements brought in to enliven the Grand Prix show, none of them worked here. DRS made oddly little impact, especially surprising given the advance anxieties of many that the “double DRS” zone would lead to an overload of non-stop passing everywhere. Not so, it turned out: the meandering nature of the streets on which the race is set just resisted any such gauche attempts to inject life.

Even so, it should have been any interesting and exciting race, with varying tyre and pit stop strategies playing out through the race and some genuinely bold and impressive overtaking moved by Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Mark Webber meaning that the finishing positions of the top six were always slightly in flux and in doubt. Well – all but one of the top six positions. From the moment that Sebastian Vettel leapt away in the lead, the number one slot was never in question.

Further back it was a horrible start for the McLarens. Not only did Button lose a spot to Rosberg, but Lewis Hamilton bogged down at the start and was overtaken first by Felipe Massa darting down in the middle line, and then by Fernando Alonso who held back and struck into turn 2, going around the outside line to pinch both Massa and Hamilton to slot into third.

It was clear from this point on that Ferrari were the main threat to Red Bull here, and McLaren were curiously subdued and relegated to supporting player status, almost intentionally ceding the limelight to local hero Fernando Alonso. Alonso went on to overtake Webber on lap 22 using DRS into turn 12, and when Webber then regained the position via an early second stop strategy the Ferrari driver then had a stunning final pit stop on lap 46 and jumped in front of the Aussie a second time.

By contrast, McLaren’s day was a litany of frustrating glitches, everything from malfunctioning KERS to small hold-ups in pit stops to overheating brakes and excessive rear tyre wear. The pit wall was issuing instructions to drivers to speed up, slow down and do all sorts of other mutually incompatible things throughout the afternoon, and Lewis Hamilton sounded irritated by the whole thing but determined just to keep his head down and put in a day’s work at the office without any more crashes or controversy – although he did get the satisfaction of beating Felipe Massa with a canny early pit stop that Ferrari failed to respond to in time. Button on the other hand was his usual solid self, putting in the laps but declaring afterwards that it had all been very boring and he had hardly seen another car all afternoon.

Which is surprising, given how crowded it was out there – the one startling fact of this race being that there wasn’t a single retirement all afternoon, despite many teams hitting gremlins during the afternoon (such as Jerome d’Ambrosio, whose water bottle failed from the get go and left him dehydrated and three kilos lighter by the end of the race.) 24 cars started, and 24 finished – a huge achievement for reliability but not one that says much for the spectacle.

There were some interesting moves down the field – Rubens Barrichello, a former winner here, was very off the pace in the Williams and ended up holding up multiple cars behind him as he circulated, which allowed for some fun battles between Paul di Resta, Vitaly Petrov and Kamui Kobayashi in the final dozen laps. And Michael Schumacher had an interesting early battle with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov that saw him get the Mercedes’ front wing sliced off as he emerged from pit lane.

Still, for all this activity – which two or three years ago would probably have been hailed as an interesting, eventful race – there was no disagreement to the line that it had been a boring race. The drivers said it, and even the TV commentators admitted it – although some of them chose to characterise it as “tense” and “engrossing”, or one for the connoisseur – damning phrases all, in media parlance.

At the end, Sebastian Vettel had one again and further extended his championship lead; and although Mark Webber was pushed down to third, the Red Bull constructors’ championship was also in rude health after Valencia. The season seems all but done, and all we have is the thrill and entertainment of individual races to keep us entertained and hooked; and sadly, Valencia simply failed to do this.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:39:36.169
 2. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.891
 3. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    27.255
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    46.190
 5. Massa        Ferrari              +    51.705
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +  1:00.000
 7. Rosberg      Mercedes             +  1:38.000
 8. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
 9. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
10. Heidfeld     Renault              +     1 lap
11. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
12. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
13. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
14. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
15. Petrov       Renault              +     1 lap
16. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
17. Schumacher   Mercedes             +     1 lap
18. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
21. Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
22. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
23. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
24. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:41.852

World Championship standings after round 8

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1.  Vettel      186   1.  Red Bull-Renault    295
 2.  Webber      109   2.  McLaren-Mercedes    206
 3.  Button      109   3.  Ferrari             129
 4.  Hamilton     97   4.  Renault              61
 5.  Alonso       87   5.  Mercedes             58
 6.  Massa        42   6.  Sauber-Ferrari       27
 7.  Rosberg      32   7.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   16
 8.  Petrov       31   8.  Force India-Mercedes 12
 9.  Heidfeld     30   9.  Williams-Cosworth     4
10.  Schumacher   26   
11.  Kobayashi    25   
12.  Sutil        10   
13.  Alguersuari   8   
14.  Buemi         8   
15.  Barrichello   4   
16.  Perez         2   
17.  Di Resta      2   

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of NASCAR’s stock cars, while Tony Stewart was also given the chance to take the McLaren-Mercedes F1 car around historic Watkins Glen.

Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” stock cars on Tuesday when he took Tony Stewart’s #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet around the Watkins Glen International road course as part of a car swap exhibition event.

In return, Tony Stewart managed to squeeze into the rather more cramped cockpit of a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 for a few circuits of his own, and said that he enjoyed not only the F1 experience but also the opportunity to test out parts of The Glen that NASCAR races don’t normally reach on their visits.

“It’s not the same. They’re completely different,” said Hamilton when asked to compare the F1 and NASCAR vehicles. “The weight – I was trying to calculate that before, because you do everything in pounds here, we do it in kilos. I think I measured it, it’s three times the weight of a F1 car. It actually doesn’t feel that heavy. I think the brakes were surprisingly very good.

“But the driving skills that you learn, the braking into corners, throttle shifting, that’s all very, very similar. That’s why I think it was easier to pick it up quicker than perhaps I would. I think it’s the same for Tony. He went straight out there and picked it up. It was no problem for him. I could definitely see myself having some fun with it a little bit more!”

Hamilton said that he’d had a very good impression of the NASCAR stock car. “I was really, really surprised. I was thinking this could be rolling quite a lot. I didn’t know how stiff it was going to be,” he said. “I tell you what, it handles really well. It’s absolutely fantastic. The shifting and the engine, the way it’s pulling through the RPM was fantastic.”

Stewart described piloting the F1 car as “truly an experience of a lifetime” and said that “It’s just amazing what the capabilities of the car are. I told the guys on pit road out there that it’s probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed during the weekends because I’m going to want [the #14] to handle like that all the time!

“The first thing I’d have to do is lose about 25 pounds right off the bat. I would actually have to go and work out in a gym again!” he said.

Stewart admitted that he had trouble just getting underway at the start. “The funny part is I couldn’t even get it up high enough in the revs to get it to pull away in first gear. It goes into a default stall mode. [But] once we got rolling, it was unbelievable. The good thing is you have somebody like Lewis that can sit there and guide you through it.”

The wet track conditions did mean that Stewart was far from finding the limits of the F1 car. “I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone,” he said, admitting that “You may back it off a little bit just to enjoy the experience more.

“I don’t want to wreck any racecar, much less somebody else’s car,” Stewart said. “As a competitor you want to go out and find the limit, but at the same time, you realize that, if you make a mistake, the penalty for that mistake is probably going to be pretty large here.

“It’s just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It’s easy to see why it’s hard for these guys to overtake because it’s not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle on the brakes to where you’re changing directions. It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other, what that car’s actually capable of.”

Hamilton seemed to be having a lot more fun in the stock car. “I just feel like a kid today,” Hamilton said. “Whilst driving a F1 car is very fun, the competitive side of it is so serious.” But by the time he’d finished his laps in a stock car, Hamilton was on the radio to declare “That was fun, man!” and to try out some celebratory burnouts – while his McLaren support crew looked on with concern in case he managed to damage the #14 in the process.

Not that Tony Stewart, the car- and team-owner of the #14, was worried. “The part I was worried about he was done by then,” he said. “The good thing is, when you see somebody doing a burnout like that, you know they’re having a good time. That was kind of the icing on the cake.”

The event was held at the New York state road course that hosted the US Grand Prix for 20 years until 1980. “It was definitely good that I got to go out in the F1 car just to kind of get an idea of where the track went,” said Hamilton. “The track is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a real classic. It just feels historic when you’re driving around. They don’t make tracks like that nowadays. When they build new Formula One circuits, they don’t build them like this.”

The Glen is just a short hop across the Canadian border from this weekend’s F1 Grand Prix event in Montreal that included a stunning, dramatic win for Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button – but a less successful experience for Hamilton himself.

“I was feeling the tough weekend this morning,” Lewis admitted. “But as the excitement built up, and when I got in the car, and once I got out, I completely forgot about last weekend.”

The ride swap exhibition drew an estimated audience of 10,000 along with a lot of excitable motorsports media. The event was organised by Mobil 1, one of Tony Stewart’s primary Cup series sponsors and the ‘Official Motor Oil of NASCAR’, and was a major ambition of Watkins Glen president Michael Printup to bring an F1 car back to the circuit, who admitted: “This was my dream come true.”

Watkins Glen hosts one of NASCAR’s two road course events in a season of 36 races – the Cup field will be racing there again on August 14, when hopefully the conditions will be rather nicer than the dull and wet weather the car swap faced this week. However, the NASCAR event normally omits the mile-long section of the course dubbed “the boot” and Stewart would like to see that change in the future.

“I enjoyed the long course,” Stewart enthused. “I’d never been around it till today. I told [NASCAR competition director] Brett Bodine when we got out of the car after our setup runs that I would like the opportunity to see us having a shot at running the long course … I think it would create more passing opportunities, for sure, and it’s just such a historic racetrack, and there are some really cool corners down there that we don’t get a shot to run on a Cup weekend.”

Current Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has said much the same thing after running a Grand-Am race at the Glen last year, and Michael Printup said he would flag this up to NASCAR president Michael Helton right away.

“I’ve asked them over and over again, and I think this was just the real live testimonial that it can happen,” he said. “Our races are becoming shorter now [in duration], because we’ve paved all the gravel traps, and we’ve taken out a lot of the mishaps and [lost a lot] of track time. Now we just have to pave 8, which is down in the heel of the boot, and I think we could have some great racing.

“Like Tony and I were talking after the [car swap], it’s just going to give us a lot more opportunity to pass,” Printup continued, saying that the trade-off would see a reduction in the number of overall laps. “I think that would make it more exciting for the fans, and it opens up another major section where fans love to view racing.”

At 40, there’s no chance any more of Tony Stewart ever making the move to F1, but a future career in NASCAR may be something that 26-year-old Lewis Hamilton considers whenever he decides his time in F1 is up.

He would be in good company, with former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Hamilton’s predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya already having gone down that road with varying degrees of success – Montoya already having made history by becoming the first non-American driver to make it through to the post-regular season Chase.

“I’m good friends with Juan,” said Stewart. “I like talking to him about what we did in IndyCar racing, his stint in F1. He’s a great competitor in the Cup Series. My driver on our team [Ryan Newman], they had a little run-in earlier this year which put me in a bad spot because I’m friends with both of them.

“It’s fun to watch guys like [Montoya]. We had him at our [Prelude to the Dream] charity dirt race a couple years ago. He had never been on a dirt track, never driven that type of racecar. To watch him adapt to that type of car so quickly, it shows there’s great racecar drivers around the world. It’s a matter of where do they want to be, do they have opportunities.”

Stewart made an offer to Hamilton about dirt tracking, should he be interested and available in 2012: “If he wants to come run The Prelude next year, I will personally pay for a brand-new car to come there. If he wants it, he’s got it. We’ll have him a brand-new one sitting there ready to go!

“Guys like Juan and Nelson [Piquet Jr. in the Truck Series] being able to have the success they’re having will create other opportunities for other foreign drivers to come into the series. Our sport has evolved so much over the last 15, 20 years, it used to be a regional sport in the States, now it’s nationwide and worldwide. I think NASCAR welcomes everybody with open arms.”

Hamilton admitted that “I’ve not been to a NASCAR race, but I would love to go and get a feel and sense … I’m sure around the world there’s things that we all can learn from each other.” But Lewis knows that to turn up to watch a NASCAR race anytime soon would most likely set all sorts of rumours about imminent series defection swirling, much as a meeting with Christian Horner in Montreal had convinced many F1 pundits that a switch for him to Red Bull was on the cards.

“I have spoken to a lot of people during the weekend,” insisted Hamilton. “I know all the mergers, the bosses, all the teams. I know Stefano Domenicali … I know Christian.” But he insisted he was happy where he was: “I’m again just very fortunate to be a part of McLaren. It’s one of the best teams there, again with great history. We have a car that is capable of winning, as my teammate showed at the weekend.”

The Hamilton/Stewart car swap was planned and announced before Kimi Raikkonen – another former McLaren driver – made his foray into the world of NASCAR Trucks and Nationwide series events. The 2007 F1 world champion is now back in Europe with his WRC team and has yet to say whether he will pursue more NASCAR appearances in the future.

In another inter-series Ganassi car swap event in mid-March this year, former IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon briefly traded cars with NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray in an non-publicised event. Dixon ran a stock car at Talladega Superspeedway while McMurray got to try out an IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park.

‘I didn’t want to come in,” said McMurray afterwards, who drives for Earnhart Ganassi Racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup. “I was excited to drive an IndyCar but I had no idea the experience would be like that. It felt as if I never turned the wheel, it was that smooth.”

Ganassi IndyCar driver Dixon found just getting in the most surprising part of a stock car. “They’re definitely pretty hard to get in and out of,” he said at the time. “I thought ours would be more difficult, but you just come from the top and slide. Here you’ve got to ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ style and slide through the window. And then get your legs in, and there’s things you can hit your head on.”

Seems like each series has its own unique set of challenges!

McLaren’s day went from hope to despair only to finish in ecstasy in a quite extraordinary Canadian Grand Prix that took more than four hours to complete.

All pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

At one point during the Canadian Grand Prix, so much had gone wrong for the McLaren team and their two drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that I quipped to a friend, “Well, this race isn’t going to make it onto the McLaren greatest hits compilation DVD.”

Which just goes to show what I (or any other expert or fan) knows, because by the end Jenson Button described it as “a fantastic race – even if I hadn’t win I would have enjoyed it. An amazing win and possibly my best.” He went on, “Definitely one of those grands prix where you are nowhere and then somewhere. The last one is the important one to be leading and I was leading half of it. An amazing day, I don’t know what else to say really.”

Frankly, everyone was in the same situation – speechless and reeling from a succession of incidents, any one of which would have been enough to dominate the headlines after a “routine” Grand Prix and yet this week shunted into being mere passing notes and anecdotes.

The early signs hadn’t been promising. While some rain had been forecast for the day, the amount of rainfall prior to the face had caught everyone by surprised and the race officials decided that the race would have to start behind a safety car, always the most anti-climactic way to begin any motor race. After five laps of this, the safety car finally came in racing got underway with polesitter Sebastian Vettel pulling out all the usual tricks to ensure he kept the lead, but even so nearly getting caught out by Fernando Alonso on the run down into turn 1.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber was also looking a little wary at the start and approached turn 1 with trepidation – but Lewis Hamilton had no such qualms, and when he saw Webber going a little wide at the first corner he decided it was an invitation to dive through. Contact was the result, Webber spinning on the approach into turn 2 and Hamilton forced to run off-track to avoid further hits. Both cars came through without damage but they lost positions – the Red Bull dropped to 14th.

“What Hamilton did there goes beyond all boundaries,” Niki Lauda said, working as a commentator for RTL television at Montreal. “He is completely mad … If the FIA does not punish him, I do not understand the world any more. At some point there has to be an end to all the jokes. You cannot drive like this – as it will result in someone getting killed.”

Inevitably the word came down that the incident was being looked at by the race stewards – given Hamilton’s torrid time with authority at Monaco, new penalties seemed almost a given. He didn’t help himself when he pressed on regardless and pressured Michael Schumacher into the turn 10 hairpin, only for Schumacher – looking back to near his best in these wet conditions – made an emphatic jink left that forced Hamilton out wide to avoid another collision.

That caused Hamilton to lose more places and drop immediately behind his McLaren team mate. Hamilton was not happy with this as he was clearly the faster of the team’s two cars at this stage, and something like red mist descended on Lewis as they came down the start/finish straight on lap seven. When Button was slow out of the final corner, Lewis thought he saw an opening on the outside line between Button and the pit wall – but that was right on the normal racing line Button would take into turn 1. Not expecting a rash challenge from his own team mate, and unsighted by the water spray, Button moved along his normal line … Only to find Lewis already there trying to overtake.

The two collided; Button got off relatively lightly – although he was on the team radio to yell angrily “what is he doing?” – but for Hamilton the situation was far worse. The situation ha thrown him into contact with the pit wall and the impact had wrecked his left rear wheel and suspension. Thinking it was just a puncture he tried to nurse it back to the pits only to be ordered by the team to park it up. He seemed in a sulky mood about being ordered to park up by the team when he spoke to reporters: “The team said I had a broken suspension and so I pulled over, but when I got out that wasn’t the case”, Hamilton told reporters. “It was only the tyre that was busted.”

Actually it wasn’t, and when the car was finally returned to the pit lane under safety car conditions it was clear that more serious damage had been done to the rear suspension and driveshaft and that the team had been right to order him to stop: the damage was certainly terminal. Meanwhile Button had to pit for new tyres (opting for the risky intermediates) and a check-up – and was also under an investigation by the stewards for the clash with Hamilton – and this looked like the worst possible race outcome for McLaren especially when for good measure Jenson was then handed a drive-thru penalty for not keeping to the safety car speed differentials as he had tried to race back to pit lane.

This was the moment when any McLaren fan would have packed up and decided “not our week”. In front, it was still firmly looking like Sebastian Vettel’s day, and the two Ferraris were also coming on strong as was Michael Schumacher, perking up more than any other time we’ve seen him since his comeback to active racing. Mark Webber was also having some fun as he sought to work his way back up from the midfield from his costly contact with Hamilton at the start.

Just to prove how badly things were turning for McLaren, even the Hail Mary risky decision to switch to intermediates had backfired. It had allowed Jenson to make some impressive headway from way back down the field following his penalty, but then around 25 minutes into the race a new weather front arrived at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and it started to rain – a lot. Button, and everyone else who had risked the change from full wets, were forced into the pits.

This weather front had been expected, and had been described as a “shower”. No one was expecting what followed, which rapidly ramped up to a monsoon of almost Malaysian intensity. And nor was it a brief shower, either. Soon even the TV cameras – which much better sensitivity in such conditions that the human eye – were displaying just banks to featureless grey clouds of water. Whether it was water from the falling rain, rain bouncing up from the tack or rain being thrown up by the F1 cars no longer mattered, all that did was that no one could see anything. And the track was flooding, too.

The race officials called in the safety car before one minor incident became a total wipe-out; ten minutes later, after receiving feedback from the drivers, the officials went one step further and threw a red flag to suspend the race at the end of lap 25 and park everyone up on the starting grid to allow the weather front to pass through. The race was no where near the three-quarter distance that would allow the race to be called with full points, so a restart was very much on the cards.

Hoping that it would be a brief pause for the shower to roll over, it turned instead into a two hour hiatus as the track staff worked overtime to try and do something about the streams of water and deep pools collecting on the track. Finally, though, the skies lightened and the rain eased off: drivers who had been wondering around pit lane were recalled to their cars and TV commentators who had been left with the nightmare scenario of filling dead time with nothing to talk about except the local wildlife were given something to commentate on.

After nine laps behind the safety car, the track was deemed safe enough to resume proper racing. In fact the officials had been too cautious and the track was now already safe enough for most drivers to decide it was time for intermediate tyres, so everyone duly plunged into the pit lane with Vettel – putting safety first – among the last to make the switch.

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the safety car and that things couldn’t get any worse for Jenson Button, we were proved wrong. Button had been putting his new intermediates to good use and was scything his way up the positions but then came up against Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari at turn 3. Alonso seemed to be running wide, Button went down the inside, Alonso turned in – and contact was inevitable. It was relatively innocuous for Button who continued back to pit lane for some new tyres as a precaution, but the contact spun Alonso around and left him beached on the high banked kerbing which meant a safety car was needed to allow the Ferrari to be retrieved. Inevitably word came down form the stewards that the incident would be investigated after the race.

The race was quickly underway again and after his latest stop, Jenson Button was starting from dead last (21st position.) The adage that “things always look darkest before the dawn” must have seemed like very black humour to Jenson at this point, but he wasn’t about to just curl up and die: he had fresh tyres, a fast car, and a lot of backmarkers to take his frustration out on. He started moving up the field, and suddenly his race came alive as he found he liked nothing more than a bit of real, rough-and-tumble racing and the thrill of some actual motor racing rather than putting in the laps and staying out of trouble. And sometimes, actual motor racing can pay off, even in these sanitised days of high-precision technical cars.

Once the DRS was activated (it had been disabled under wet conditions) it was as if someone had attached an after-burner to the McLaren and Button was able to tear through the field. Pretty much everyone had written him off by this time, but then suddenly there he was on the timing screens and on the television coverage bearing down on Kamui Kobayashi for fourth place – and blasting by him with ease, his pace now a staggering four seconds a lap faster than the race leader, Sebastian Vettel.

Behind him, Nick Heidfeld attempted to close up on Kobayashi himself but instead ran into the back of the Sauber at turn 2 when the Japanese driver had struggled to get the power down. Heidfeld’s front wing was wrecked, but then unfortunately fell off right in front of the Renault and launched it briefly into the air in one of those nightmare scenarios all drivers worry about. Fortunately in this case airtime was limited and Heidfeld returned to earth, slid along the barrier and down into an escape road without too much drama.

The race, however, needed yet another safety car period because of the amount of front wing debris now scattered all over the track. A flaw with the current safety car procedures was also apparent: with drivers having to stick within the “safety car speed differentials” wherever they were on the track, it left the field very string out and taking a long time to catch up with the safety car itself. That meant that every time the track marshals through they had a gap to go out onto the track to remove the debris, another straggling group of cars would show up around the bend. The TV cameras caught one heart-stopping moment when a marshal fell on the still-wet slippery track surface just as a car appeared: even under safety car conditions an F1 car is going at a good 60 or 70mph and for a moment both marshal and driver were grappling with which way to dive to avoid a potentially dreadful collision.

The safety car period did mean that the field was packed closer together for the restart with nine laps remaining – which meant that Button was close to Vettel, Schumacher and Webber and in with a shot of a podium place after all. A chance was all he needed to be motivated to get down to work.

Vettel was first to act, realising the danger and now putting his foot down to pull out an immediate safety cushion at the end of the caution period. Webber was next to act, dispatching Schumacher on lap 65 only then overrun the chicane in so doing, forcing him to hand the position back to Schumacher (which he neatly managed to do without offering Button any opportunistic opening) and try again next lap by.

But instead, the next lap through saw Webber make a mistake through the final chicane and nearly lose the back of the Red Bull into the wall of champions; Button saw the red carpet, and even though it meant moving off the dry line and onto a fully wet part of the track on his slicks, he went for it. He was rewarded with third place and quickly pulled away from Webber before any counterattack could ensue, and Button then quickly caught up with Michael Schumacher and blasted past him with the aid of the DRS system.

That left Button in second place, but Vettel was now too far in front. By the time Button had closed up on the leader it was the penultimate lap, and despite being the slower car it was clear that the Red Bull held all the high cards and should have no trouble holding on for the last couple of minutes before the chequered flag came out, the final lap just slipping inside the two hour time limit despite the five extended safety car periods.

Jenson Button must still have been grinning from ear to ear at the sensational recover he had made – from last to second place, one helluva achievement considering the nightmare early laps for McLaren. Perhaps, when he saw Vettel skate off the track ahead of him, Button thought that we was literally dreaming – delierious, even – because there was no way in hell that this would actually happen: Vettel never cracked. Vettel never made silly mistakes. Vettel had been perfect the entire race, there was no way he’d give it away just a few turns from the end.

But Vettel had. He ran deep into turn 3 and went sideways, just about controlling the car and preventing total disaster but not nearly good enough to stop Button from blasting his way past into the lead. A minute later and Button was through the final corner, past the wall of champions – and staring at the chequered flag, which was for him for the first time since China in April 2010.

From disaster to triumph, Button had given McLaren perhaps its most famous victory in the last few years: “The 2011 Canadian Grand Prix may well be remembered as one of the most eventful, exciting and suspenseful races in Formula 1 history,” said the team’s Martin Whitmarsh. “I’ve heard the word ‘unbelievable’ shouted at me by joyful colleagues about a hundred times this afternoon, and in truth Jenson’s drive was exactly that: absolutely unbelievable. Other adjectives that spring to mind are ‘heroic’, ‘majestic’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘superb’!”

The battle wasn’t entirely over at the chequered flag, however – there was still the outstanding matter of the investigation into Button’s clash with Fernando Alonso mid-race, which could yet have seen Button lose the victory. However it seemed that the race officials – bolstered this week by two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi as the drivers’ representative – had every desire to get out of Montreal without being lynched by irate fans, and the decision came down that no action would be taken against Button over the collision.

Their statement pointed out that Alonso had been on a slow out-lap from the pits and that Button had his car “firmly established on the inside line prior to the entry of the corner and drove onto the kerb to avoid Car 5 on the outside.” Accordingly, “In view of the conditions and the statements by both drivers and their team representatives, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Even Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali seemed to concede that, while Button was still mainly responsible for his driver’s exit in his eyes, he couldn’t be expected to take all the blame. “The conditions were tricky because on the inside the line was slippery, because Jenson had a little bit of understeer in that moment,” he said. “We just had bad luck today.”

Nor was there any steward action arising from Button’s clash with Hamilton earlier in the race: “It appears from the position of Hamilton at that moment … that Button was unlikely to have seen Hamilton,” said the stewards’ statement. “At the point of contact Button had not yet moved as far to the left of the track as he had on the previous lap, or that Schumacher had on that lap.

“The Stewards have concluded that it was reasonable for Hamilton to believe that Button would have seen him and that he could have made the passing manoeuvre. Further, the Stewards have concluded that it is reasonable to believe that Button was not aware of Hamilton’s position to his left.

“Therefore, the Stewards decide that this was a ‘racing incident’ and have taken no further action.”

Cue a sigh of relief from everyone in the paddock, because no one – not even Red Bull – would have wanted one of the all-time great GPs ruined by post-race tinkering.

There were of course plenty of other stories going on during the wet Sunday afternoon. There was Paul di Resta having a fabulous race until he ended up running into the back of Nick Heidfeld and wrecking his front wing, getting a drive-thru and then finally ruing an early attempt to switch to slicks that saw him snap out, touch the wall and wreck his suspension.

And there was Michael Schumacher, suddenly looking more alive than anytime since his return from retirement, who looked set for a podium position at long last until finally the Mercedes was outclassed in the drying conditions later in the race and proved no match for Button and Webber going through.

There was also Ferrari, who lost Alonso in that incident with Jenson Button mid-race and then saw Felipe Massa – who had been running strongly right behind his team mate early in the race – slump to a rather underwhelming sixth place by the end; or Kamui Kobayashi who was in second place when the race was red flagged thanks to not having been lured in for any pit stop tyre changes up to that point, who was disappointed to end up in seventh just ahead of Toro Rosso’s Jamie Alguersuari who had been wild and accident-prone in the practice and qualifying sessions at Montreal amid rumours that he’s about to be replaced at the team, but who did a quietly impressive and accident-free race performance.

But really the crux of the story of Montreal 2011 would be Jenson Button’s astounding, triumphant day; Lewis Hamilton’s red mist; the weather playing a major, starring role in proceedings; and that rarest of sights, a mistake by Sebastian Vettel at a critical moment that showed a chink (at last!) in the young German’s armour after all.

Race result

Pos Driver              Team                      Time
 1. Jenson Button       McLaren-Mercedes    4:04:39.537s
 2. Sebastian Vettel    Red Bull-Renault     +    2.709s
 3. Mark Webber         Red Bull-Renault     +   13.828s
 4. Michael Schumacher  Mercedes             +   14.219s
 5. Vitaly Petrov       Renault              +   20.395s
 6. Felipe Massa        Ferrari              +   33.225s
 7. Kamui Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari       +   33.270s
 8. Jaime Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   35.964s
 9. Rubens Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +   45.117s
10. Sebastien Buemi     Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +   47.056s
11. Nico Rosberg        Mercedes             +   50.454s
12. Pedro de la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari       + 1:03.607s
13. Tonio Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
14. Jerome D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
15. Timo Glock          Virgin-Cosworth      +    1 Lap
16. Jarno Trulli        Lotus-Renault        +    1 Lap
17. Narain Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    1 Lap
18. Paul di Resta       Force India-Mercedes +    3 Laps

Retirements:

Driver             Team                Laps
Pastor Maldonado   Williams-Cosworth     61
Nick Heidfeld      Renault               55
Adrian Sutil       Force India-Mercedes  49
Fernando Alonso    Ferrari               36
Heikki Kovalainen  Lotus-Renault         28
Lewis Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       7

World Championship standings after round 7

Drivers                      Constructors             
 1. Sebastian Vettel   161   1. Red Bull-Renault     255
 2. Jenson Button      101   2. McLaren-Mercedes     186
 3. Mark Webber        94    3. Ferrari              101
 4. Lewis Hamilton     85    4. Renault               60
 5. Fernando Alonso    69    5. Mercedes              52
 6. Felipe Massa       32    6. Sauber-Ferrari        27
 7. Vitaly Petrov      31    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    12
 8. Nick Heidfeld      29    8. Force India-Mercedes  10
 9. Michael Schumacher 26    9. Williams-Cosworth      4
10. Nico Rosberg       26
11. Kamui Kobayashi    25
12. Adrian Sutil        8
13. Sebastien Buemi     8
14. Jaime Alguersuari   4
15. Rubens Barrichello  4
16. Sergio Perez        2
17. Paul Di Resta       2

A small side note, apologising for the break in service in F1 race reports for Barcelona and Monaco. This was due to having too much on in the motor sports field in May, with Monaco in particular coinciding with both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in the US that I was covering for crash.net which left me reeling trying to keep up.

Something had to give, and alas it has to be the F1 race reports. ON one hand I hope it didn’t inconvenience you, but on the other I rather hope you missed them!

Certainly Monaco wasn’t missed due to lack of interest, or absence of anything to write about. Monaco is my favourite Grand Prix of the year and we were spoilt for choice with the amount of action we had. I came away from that thinking that GPs just didn’t come any better – but now I’ve just written up the Canadian Grand Prix, and what an absolutely extraordinary event that turned out to be!

Monaco wasn’t only eventful for the on-track action – there’s also the small matter of Lewis Hamilton’s ill-fated post-race “joke” and his outburst about being constantly in the stewards’ office. It’s something that will have repercussions, but most worryingly it’s Hamilton’s own state of mind that it calls must urgently into focus – as was proved by his actions in the opening laps in Montreal. This, I suspect, is a story that will run and run in 2011.

And hopefully I’ll be back to regular service from here on to cover it all.

For a while there, it looked as though we could have a truly wild and unpredictable and exciting F1 Grand Prix of Turkey at Istanbul Park.

Unfortunately, that moment was on Friday morning, when Istanbul was strangely cold, grey, wet and windy – unseasonal conditions that caught out everyone, including championship leader Sebastian Vettel who managed to wreck his car in a nasty aquaplaning incident in the rain. Did this mean that we were in for an upset this weekend and a dramatic opening up of the race for the 2011 driver and team titles?

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner Pictures by arrangement and prior agreement with CrashNet/CrashPA

Sadly the answer turned out to be no. Sunday brought with it hot, sunny and dry conditions, and while the cars looked all the better for having the sun glinting off the bodywork, the excitement and unpredictability of the race was diminished by the absence of the bad weather.

Blessed with the clean side of the grid, Sebastian Vettel was able to get away from the starting grid without any problems, and thereafter sailed serenely around 58 laps always on course for victory and never having to deviate from Plan A. After the excitement of the earlier races thus far in 2011 where it seemed that the competition might just possibly be catching up with Red Bull, it was remarkable just how much in cruise control he was allowed to be here.

Behind Vettel at the start, Mark Webber was lumbered with the dirty side of the track and it was as tricky for him as it had been for others similarly handicapped in the support races like GP2: the wheels spinning on the dust and struggling to grip, he had no chance to stop Nico Rosberg flying through from third place on the other side, and had to settle for holding off Lewis Hamilton into the first turn.

Lewis Hamilton had managed to overcome the dirty side jinx and hold off Fernando Alonso for fourth; Alonso was left holding on to the outside line through turn 1, wheel to wheel with Jenson Button, but once through and into the right hand turn 2 the advantage shifted to the Ferrari and Button had to let him go, settling for retaining the sixth place from which he had started.

08.05.2011- Race, start

But Hamilton – who had seen one of his finest GP2 performances here, charging from the back of the grid in his pre-F1 days – then squandered his chance and pushed Webber too hard into turn 3, ending up running wide instead and having to brake, which allowed Alonso through to take the position. Worse, it also allowed Button through as well – and Button was in no mood to show him motorway etiquette and allow his team mate to blend in ahead of him, so instead Hamilton had to grit his teeth and settle for sixth in front of Michael Schumacher. He wasn’t happy with this state of affairs and immediately set about throwing everything he had at Button to get past.

Behind the squabbling McLarens, Vitaly Petrov decided to make a lunge on Schumacher down the inside into turn 12. It was a silly move – there was no chance he wasn’t going to outbrake himself and miss the apex – but the odd thing was that Schumacher himself apparently didn’t see it coming, and didn’t allow Petrov to have the accident. The Young Schumacher was far cleverer than this: but the Old Schumacher seemed oblivious, turned into the corner as normal, and a collision was inevitable. It wrecked Schuey’s front wing and he was obliged to pit a couple of corners later, putting him to the back of the field alongside Sergio Perez, who had already pitted for a damaged front wing at the end of the first lap. As for Petrov, the Renault ironically escaped any serious damage from the collision and carried on in eighth, Felipe Massa having slipped the Ferrari past them both to lay claim to seventh during the conflagration.

Any hope of avoiding a Red Bull lock-out now seemed to rest on Nico Rosberg in second; but once the Drag Reduction System (DRS) adjustable rear wings were enabled for use down the backstraight, it was just a matter of minutes before Webber lined up the Mercedes and blew past him into turn 12 on lap 5. Rosberg had nothing for him and looked like he was standing still, although he did try and counter attack through the final corners and down the main straight after Webber’s boosted speed made him struggle to to run off. But the Aussie did hold it together, Rosberg’s retaliation faltered, and the Red Bulls were one-two.

Next time through there, Lewis Hamilton had the DRS edge over Jenson Button and put it to good use: but Jenson fought back through the remaining corners and the two came out side-by-side onto the main straight, Jenson even pulling back in front before Hamilton then switched to the inside line and took turn 1 of lap 7 first and left Button with no right of reply – until the next time through, when the DRS show was on the other foot, and Button was able to snatch the position back with a very similar move, while just in front of the battling McLarens Alonso was also putting DRS to good use to dispatch Rosberg for third place.

Having tried, succeeded and failed to overtake his team mate, Hamilton went into a bit of a funk – most likely because he had shot his tyres with all those antics on the opening laps. He was falling off the back of Button and into the clutches of Massa behind him, and at the end of lap 9 Massa got the DRS upper hand and relegated Lewis down to seventh; but two corners later and both cars were in pit lane for new tyres, at which point Hamilton got the better stop and was away again before Massa and the two went side-by-side down pit lane until Massa finally had to concede the position as they exited pit lane and back on track in 12th and 13th places. Arguably Ferrari should have been penalised for an unsafe release from the pit box right into the McLaren’s path, but the officials seemed to take the view of “no harm, no foul” and that Massa had indeed yielded the place. Eventually.

Alonso and Rosberg were into the pits next time around, it was clear that several teams were facing their worse case tyre degradation and were having to switch from a three- to a costly four-stop strategy, which several teams euphemistically dubbed “Plan B” in their lightly coded radio communications to their drivers. Jenson Button was one of the last of the leaders to pit and duly briefly led the race on lap 12 and looked set for a three-stop strategy. Of course, whether McLaren’s Plan A was a patch on Red Bull’s was another matter entirely.

After more laps on degraded tyres once he did pit at the end of lap 13, he emerged in seventh behind Hamilton and Massa, a net loss of two positions. The driver that had made the extended first stint pay off perfectly for him was Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who – having started from the back of the grid after qualifying problems – had muscled his way up to a staggering fifth place by the time he came in for his own pit stop at the same time as Button did, the Sauber emerging back in 13th.

08.05.2011- Race, Lewis Hamilton (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26 and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Rosberg meanwhile was still proving remarkably easy prey for his rivals, with Hamilton using DRS to pass him on lap 14. “We knew we had a little bit of vulnerability on high fuel,” explained team principal Ross Brawn later. “When we got into the race we started blistering the rear tyres which we hadn’t seen in practice [sessions,] so that’s why we fell away so quickly.” However the situation was improving as the fuel load lessened, and he was able to fend off the advances of Felipe Massa for several laps despite having the advantage of DRS, until the end of lap 21 saw Massa finally force his way past – and Jenson Button then dive through as well, putting the McLaren wheel to wheel through the final corners were Button somehow made the outside line off the final corner work as an overtaking point as Rosberg got loose on the apex. Two laps later and Massa locked up on the run down to turn 12 and flat-spotted his tyres, allowing Button through; Massa took to the pits for new rubber in the meantime.

Massa’s team mate Fernando Alonso had now clearly emerged as the biggest potential fly in Red Bull’s ointment, running just 2.5s off the back of Webber who in turn had closed up to within 3.3s of the leader, Sebastian Vettel. Everyone else was holding a busted flush: Hamilton, running in fourth behind Alonso, was 10s off the Ferrari and losing almost a second a lap to him, forcing him to come in for new tyres as early as lap 10 and confirming a four-stop strategy. Webber and Alonso were in for their stops shortly afterwards, but the surprise was that Vettel was able to pump in some fast laps – faster even than those on fresh rubber – and still remain out on track until lap 25 when he finally pitted for soft tyres, confirming him on a three-stop strategy and now over 8s clear of Webber and Alonso battling over second. Button was in two laps later from fourth, but a problem on the rear left wheel cost him a second and it put him out in traffic in seventh, just ahead of Rosberg and behind Massa.

Alonso managed to pass Webber at the midpoint of the race with the help of the DRS despite being far back on the run down into turn 12 at the end of the back straight, after which things finally calmed down a bit where the only major battle of interest on track were the repeated attempts by Button to overtake Massa for sixth, but getting continually frustrated by the Brazilian who was looking something back to his old form; Button finally managed to bring DRS to bear successfully at the end of lap 34 to took the position, at which point Massa dived into the pits anyway.

Already in the pits was Lewis Hamilton for his third stop of the afternoon; and it was not going well. A major problem with the front right wheel nuts lost him horrendous amounts of time and then – to add insult to injury – once the job was finally complete, the lollypop man had to hold him still longer because of Massa arriving at the pit stall right in front of them.

“It was a disappointing day on my behalf, I would say,” Hamilton conceded, dubbing it “Not one of my best races.” He admitted to damaging his tyres in his early battle with Jenson which forced an earlier-than-planned first pit stop; “and then at one of the stops we lost a lot of time … But in general I was already behind from turn 3.” Given all that, he maintained that “I felt that I recovered reasonably well considering how much time I lost throughout the race,” even though it meant he was never in with any shot at the win or even a podium position. “I just apologised to the guys – they worked as hard as they could. We were definitely able to do better today.”

Massa’s day was also slowing going downhill; a slow pit stop followed by a run-off into the marbles and off track at turn 8 when he rejoined left him in 14th before he went on to re-overtake Kobayashi under DRS into turn 12 – a move that was starting to look suspiciously easy and hum-drum after so many demonstrations this afternoon. Kobayashi himself had been compromised by slight contact with Sebastien Buemi which meant that he got a slow puncture and had to take his final pit stop early, resulting in an uncomfortably long 20-lap final stint. “Otherwise I think I could have finished seventh and scored more points,” he said, but ultimately had to settle for tenth place.

08.05.2011- Race, Nico Rosberg (GER), Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team, MGP W02, Felipe Massa (BRA), Scuderia Ferrari, F-150 Italia and Jenson Button (GBR), McLaren Mercedes, MP4-26

Vettel took what appeared to be final stop at the end of lap 40 and emerged some 7s ahead of Alonso in second, with Webber close behind him and then a huge gap back to Hamilton who still had another stop to make before the end. Rosburg was in fifth while Button had already come in for his final pit stop on the same lap as Vettel and was in sixth ahead of Petrov, Nick Heidfeld, Massa and Michael Schumacher who were all running very closely together on track.

Rosberg was in for his fourth and final stop at the end of lap 44; Webber was in next time around with a slightly slow stop, and Alonso, Hamilton and Massa all came in the next lap after that, and Massa got a poor stop as the rear right wheel was still revolving as Massa failed to properly engage the clutch, thwarting the crew’s efforts to mount a new tyre on it.

Alonso had been reacting to cover Webber’s own stop, and that forced Red Bull to take a safety-first approach and call in Vettel for a fourth stop after all at the end of lap 47. He had the gap over the opposition to do so, and it was better than risking leaving the leader out for another ten laps only to see the tyres fall apart and gift the win to Alonso. That left Jenson Button staying out as the only one of the front runners to try and make it on three stops only.

The strategy cards had been played – who would come out the winner? Webber immediately put out a statement of intent with a new fastest lap of the race straight away, and was charging down Alonso to take second and make it a one-two for Red Bull after all. Button was up to fourth ahead of Hamilton and Rosberg, but on considerably older rubber than they were and without anything like the cushion that Vettel would have enjoyed at the front.

Despite doing a everything he could to husband his tyres with his trademark smooth driving style, the task was beyond Button: on lap 50, he put up no fight as his team mate took the position in the DRS zone. More disappointingly, the car’s pace dropped off a cliff shortly after that and he was a sitting duck for Nico Rosberg to breeze past three laps before the end.

Button rued the decision to try and stretch the final set of tyres as long as they did – especially as they had alternatives, as he pointed out after the race. “We didn’t leave the tyres long enough,” Button suggested. “The tyres were still good at the end of every stint, but we came in … We should’ve stayed out for longer because it made the last stint just impossible, just too many laps.”

Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi could sympathise with Button: he had also tried the three-stop strategy and was running in seventh only to succumb to the attentions of both Renaults, Heidfeld and Petrov, in the closing four laps and end up in ninth just ahead of Kobayashi.

There was no tyre mismatch between Alonso and Webber, but you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was by the way Webber slashed his way through Alonso’s lead and closed right up to the back of the Ferrari. As the two cars came down into turn 12 on lap 51, the DRS kicked in and Webber was made to sweep around the outside line as Alonso did everything he could to make it difficult for him as they went side-by-side through the final turns. Alonso then fought back down the main straight, but Webber protected the inside line and stopped the Ferrari from diving through. A small mistake by Alonso through turn 5 then put him outside striking distance next time through the DRS danger zone, and after that Webber was away, job done. No worries, mate.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

That confirmed the podium as Vettel, Webber and Alonso, with Hamilton and Rosberg deserving their fourth and fifth places and Button sadly the victim of what had proved to be an unwise tyre strategy after all.

It had proved to be an interesting day for team mates: last year at Turkey produced that memorable and devastating crash between Vettel and Webber, and earlier in this year’s race we saw that hard but mercifully contact-free fight between Hamilton and Button; there was also the strange moment on lap 13 when Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov had come through the final corners side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel in what looked like a concerted effort to wreck both Renaults. Petrov pushed Heidfeld so wide that the German was nearly sent shooting into the pit lane entrance, and the two madly gesticulated at one another as they emerged onto the main straight.

“Yeah, that’s not nice. It shouldn’t happen,” Heidfeld said afterwards. “He just pushed me wide and we made contact. It’s not a safe thing to do.”

But the man having quite simply the worst time of it in Turkey this afternoon was Michael Schumacher. After that early encounter with Petrov that put him to the back of the grid, he found himself going wheel to wheel with the backmarker minnows and making heavy weather for it. Without a Benetton or a Ferrari underneath him, his ability to deal with traffic just seemed to have deserted him and he was overtaken by the likes of his former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello, despite Rubens now being in the troubled and deeply unloved 2011 Williams, as well as by Kobayashi and Adrian Sutil making an opportunistic pass on the old master on lap 16, and later in the race Sebastien Buemi used DRS to perfection to breeze pass Schuey on lap 45, who no longer even seemed interesting in fending off such assaults.

He did have a nice moment on lap 54 when Felipe Massa passed him in turn 12, only for the old instincts to kick in again and allow Michael to perform a perfect switchback to re-pass Massa. Next time into turn 12 the two of them came up on the back of Jamie Alguersuari just to complicate things: the DRS feature went into passing the Toro Rosso, and then Massa and Schumacher battled down the start/finish straight. The Ferrari had the better straight-line speed and took the inside line into turn 1, forcing Schumacher out wide in a brutal move by Massa reminiscent of the ruthless moves of Schumacher himself at his best (or his worst, depending on your point of view.)

It was all rather dispiriting for the German, and Schumacher admitted for the first time after the race that he was no longer feeling happy with his day job: “Mostly I was able to go forward, but the big joy is not there right now,” he said, adding that the early clash with Petrov has sealed his entire day’s fortunes. “The race was a given from there, lots of fighting, lots of action, but for nothing. The golden helmet, that’s what we call it in Germany, that’s what I got and nothing else, so it’s a bit of a shame.”

For the first time it seems that the multiple world champion’s mask has cracked, and you have to wonder: is 2011 the year he will finally call it a day on his F1 career?

After the remarkable endurance achievement of all-but-one cars finishing the last race in China, Turkey nearly repeated the feat: only Timo Glock (who failed to even take to the starting grid because of a gearbox problem) and Paul di Resta (ordered to park his Force India on lap 45 on safety grounds shortly after a pit stop, after telemetry suggested a wheel was improperly attached) failed to make it to the end of the race. Williams’ Pastor Maldonado was given a pit lane speeding penalty, a drive-thru that saw him finish well off the lead lap in 17th.

08.05.2011- Race, Sebastian Vettel (GER), Red Bull Racing, RB7 race winner

But reliability and lack of retirements aside, the biggest achievement of the race was just how far in front of the competition Red Bull now appear to be. Far from a return to Europe meaning the teams would bunch up again in terms of performance, it seems to have added just another growth spurt to Red Bull. At this race, the question of 2011 is not if Vettel and Red Bull will win the titles, but with how many races in hand they’ll achieve it.

Race result

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:30:17.558
 2. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     8.807
 3. Alonso       Ferrari              +    10.075
 4. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    40.232
 5. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    47.539
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    59.431
 7. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1:00.857
 8. Petrov       Renault              +  1:08.168
 9. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:09.300
10. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +  1:18.000
11. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:19.800
12. Schumacher   Mercedes             +  1:25.400
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
14. Perez        Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
15. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
16. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
17. Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
18. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +     1 lap
19. Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault        +    2 laps
20. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21. Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth         +    3 laps
22. Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth         +    5 laps

Fastest lap: Webber, 1:29.703

Not classified/retirements:

Driver    Team                  Lap
Di Resta  Force India-Mercedes  45
Glock     Virgin-Cosworth       1

World Championship standings after round 4

Drivers:                Constructors:             
 1. Vettel        93    1. Red Bull-Renault     148
 2. Hamilton      59    2. McLaren-Mercedes     105
 3. Webber        55    3. Ferrari               65
 4. Button        46    4. Renault               42
 5. Alonso        41    5. Mercedes              26
 6. Massa         24    6. Sauber-Ferrari         8
 7. Petrov        21    7. Toro Rosso-Ferrari     6
 8. Heidfeld      21    8. Force India-Mercedes   4
 9. Rosberg       20   
10. Kobayashi      8   
11. Buemi          6   
12. Schumacher     6   
13. Sutil          2   
14. Di Resta       2




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