Friday 22 September 2017

Chasing pack crave Silverstone spoils to kick-start title surge

Red Bull's rivals need to regain lost ground in the British Grand Prix, writes David Kennedy

The 14th century Kingdom of Valencia featured heavily in the Spanish Inquisition. Back then it was about papal bulls and the dominance of one religion, Catholicism. Fast-forward 700 years and we have red bulls, the dominance of one particular team and a nervous opposition who can only dream about converting their woes into wins. But at least, as they stepped back into Europe, the sun shone on their collective efforts.

Formula One becomes more than just a sport when it showcases a beautiful city like Valencia. As the FIA cameras pan around the yacht-filled harbour and across a port that hosted the 2007 and 2010 America's Cup, Rita Barbera, the visionary mayor of Valencia, has every reason to feel proud of the role she played in getting F1 to its shores and a tidy revenue stream of over €40m, thanks to the profligate pockets of the many F1 fans that make it their annual pilgrimage.

No wonder Barcelona is nervous it might lose out to Valencia, who are pitching strongly to replace their Catalan rival in becoming the venue for the 'Spanish' rather than the 'European' Grand Prix. The two may even end up hosting the race on alternate years.

While Valencia marina serves as a beautiful backdrop, its semi-permanent street circuit doesn't always deliver the action. It's faster than some purpose-built layouts but the implementation of a proper straight rather than a winding flat-out section would have gone a long way to contributing to better overtaking opportunities.

Of course the Canadian Grand Prix was always going to be a hard act to follow. But for Sebastian Vettel the crushing disappointment of his sensational last lap fumble in Canada was replaced by a Zen-like self-awareness in Valencia, which produced a performance of prosaic beauty that realigned the planets in the F1 universe and put the pretenders firmly in their place.

Until the fourth and final stint of the race Vettel dangled just a few seconds ahead of a titanic scrap between his team-mate Mark Webber and Ferrari's local hero Fernando Alonso.

Webber eventually ceded second to Fernando Alonso who was nonetheless buoyed that his Ferrari was able to get on terms with at least one of the Red Bulls.

Vettel was just hanging on in front but as soon as he picked up his final set of Pirellis he scorched into a ten-second lead, leaving Alonso the juice in a can of Red Bulls. Second was a nice reward for the Ferrari driver's legion of fans.

Mindful of the need to preserve peak rev performance in his Renault engine and transmission, Vettel also had to control the pace to make sure he didn't slip into the DRS attack zone from the scrapping duo behind. It's a subtle art of pacing that would be beyond many a seasoned pro and from a 23-year-old is utterly remarkable.

The McLaren squad in contrast took a collective unscheduled day off from competitiveness and Mercedes were never at the races, making it as straightforward as it was likely to get for Vettel and Red Bull.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button will be hoping their anonymous race-day performances in Valencia were a one-off aberration, as their home race looms.

Certainly the expectation is that the 2011 McLaren chassis will be a better proposition around the fast sweeping bends in Northamptonshire than it was coming off slow corners in Spain, where it was noticeable that Button was no match for the similarly powered Mercedes of Michael Schumacher on the drag race out of the slow stuff. As the only two winners this season, apart from Vettel -- an extraordinary statistic given the excitement at the front of nearly every race -- there will be extra attention on home favourites Hamilton and Button.

It's hard to believe that a whole year has passed since Webber and Vettel's respective position within the team was defined by a controversial management decision. We already know that Red Bull gives you wings but when Vettel became the recipient of Webber's trick new wing because Vettel had broken his version in a crash, they should have added 'at the expense of your team-mate'.

Webber's considerable pique and subsequent Grand Prix win at Silverstone helped fuel his title challenge all the way to the final race of the year and it's a well of motivation the Aussie could do with tapping now as the series reaches the half-way point with Vettel 77 points clear, a margin of more than three full GPs.

Hamilton won his home race in 2008 and Button's best ever placing was fourth. Though Webber was the victor last year, Vettel was the year previous to that.

Ferrari had upped the ante, with Alonso more than a match for the slower of the Red Bulls. Pirelli's decision to bring their hard compound tyre to Silverstone as the 'Prime' selection could be bad news for the prancing horse chassis, which has struggled on that compound thus far.

All eyes will be on stopwatches right from the start of practice to see how the teams are coping with the FIA's ban on exhaust-driven diffusers, a move that Red Bull guru Helmut Marko claims could cost his squad up to half a second per lap. The term 'clutching at straws' springs to mind as a desperate opposition look to a rulebook to close the gap on Red Bull.

Looking stateside, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh has suggested that F1's return to America in Austin next year should be the first of two annual visits to the USA. That might be a bit premature but it's certainly good news that the Austin race crossed an important funding hurdle at local government level in Texas this week and the event appears to be back on target with a $25m-a-year grant duly rubber-stamped.

There's a lot of demand from countries around the world to stage F1 and the calendar is forever expanding. However, the teams are adamant they won't race after November. Bahrain made the decision not to reschedule the controversial GP called off in March, but the teams would have vetoed it anyway; racing in December is just not an option.

When you see Valencia and what F1 can do for a city, it's no wonder there's a big demand out there. Bernie Ecclestone probably dreams of 20-month years to satisfy the exponential growth of this monster he has created almost singlehandedly.

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