Friday 26 May 2017

Race for next year's seats is a welcome distraction

Annual post-season jostling for drivers can make up for a predictable year, writes David Kennedy

Consistent winning can get monotonous, not just for the spectator, but perhaps for the rich pallet of some Red Bull personnel who must find that once they'd popped open 10 bottles of Mumm champagne in one season the 11th didn't quite have the same fizz. Sometimes you need a dollop of failure to appreciate success.

But that's not true of drivers. They never tire of winning. Sebastian Vettel will have lamented his Abu Dhabi second-corner tyre failure with all the wailings and gnashing of teeth of a Greek widow in mourning.

One man's misfortune is another's luck. Lewis Hamilton found the mirage of victory that eluded him since his last win in July finally came good in the desert setting of the Yas Marina circuit. Hamilton's drive was part-gifted and part-earned. He didn't put a wheel wrong as he controlled his pace against an extraordinarily fired-up Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard rarely offers anything less than 100 per cent and he thrashed his recalcitrant Ferrari to within an inch of its life in his typically committed efforts to keep up with Hamilton's superior McLaren.

We were robbed of a Vettel/Hamilton duel but 2012 promises closer battles as these great drivers will be pitted against each other on more equal terms, assuming McLaren continues its steady progress. Back in the engineering wonderland of their base in Woking, where McLaren designs a new part every 20 minutes, there is no question of letting up on this front.

Jenson Button meanwhile produced a determined drive to take third in Abu Dhabi with a car that had no power-boosting KERS for much of the race. Although Hamilton can't catch Button in the championship, with the team-mates equal on wins, there are still bragging rights up for grabs as to who can bow out with four wins.

The FIA met recently to discuss three chassis name changes and the court of common sense decreed that Renault-Lotus (the French car manufacturer sold the team two years ago) will now be called 'Lotus' while it's nemeses 'Team Lotus' will be renamed 'Caterham' -- both teams suffering from similar-name identity, and in turn a reluctance from would-be sponsors to commit as long as the confusion reigned.

Virgin Racing will now be known as 'Marussia' since Richard Branson's company was associated only in name and not investment. We can say goodbye to classic 'Colemanballs' such as David Coulthard's recent commentary, "That was Sebastian Vettel nearly going into the back of one of the Virgins".

Some seats remain to be filled for 2012. F1 awaits with interest to see if Robert Kubica -- who suffered dreadful injuries to his arm in Italy last February when an Armco barrier sliced through his rally car -- will return to the sport that promised to reward his exceptional talent. There is talk that Ferrari might replace Felipe Massa, and Kubica is a driver under consideration.

It must be uplifting for the man who is still undergoing operations and physio to have the might of Ferrari wanting you to drive for them, provided of course that you're still fit and quick. It's probably too soon to expect him to be on the grid in March 2012 but what a miracle it will be if he does appear at all.

Meanwhile, 14 F1 hopefuls got to showcase their talents in post-Grand Prix testing in Abu Dhabi last week. Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso's regular test driver since 2010, led the young drivers when he sampled a Red Bull. He was very impressive, topping the timesheets on all three days. Jules Bianchi, Ferrari's reserve driver, threw his hat into the ring by getting to within a tenth of Vergne on day two of the test.

Robert Wickens got his first taste of F1 with three bites of the cherry. In Friday's opening practice session he impressed by finishing just 0.5 seconds adrift of regular racer Timo Glock in the Marussia car. In testing on the Tuesday he finished third overall in his run for Renault, while on Thursday, again with Marussia, he was 0.4s faster than Charles Pic, the wealthy Frenchman who looks likely to sign for the team for 2012.

There are plenty of variables at play in these tests so straight comparisons can be misleading. Engine settings, tyre compounds and fuel loads can vary. Some teams use this opportunity to do development work given that this is the only in-season test run.

All in all Wickens had a fantastic run and his test generated a lot of interest from several team owners. The fact Wickens has beaten Vergne to win the Renault 3.5 championship this year, who in turn was 0.4s away from Vettel's Abu Dhabi pole position time, all bodes well for the Canadian given that it was only his second ever run in an F1 car.

Renault's regular Russian driver Vitaly Petrov launched a startling broadside against his team in an interview with a Russian TV channel when he defied his contractual obligation that prevents him from criticising his team. "But I couldn't say in interviews that we lost it with the pitstops, and I cannot talk about that now either. But I can't keep silent any more -- it is over. I can't keep everything inside any more."

He received a right dressing down, but according to his team all is now forgiven. Still you wonder how he can continue to drive for them when the trust between them has been eroded to that extent.

The season finale is played out next Sunday in Brazil. Last year it was Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton and Button that took the top five slots. Remember when Massa was world champion for about 30 seconds in 2008 until Hamilton eclipsed him and abruptly ended the premature celebrations of Massa's family in the pits?

You could argue that Hamilton won in Abu Dhabi because his mother was summonsed to lend her support to her son, and that clearly worked. Or that Button has been doing well generally thanks to his ongoing cozy family relations. Maybe it will be the new weapon in F1 armoury 'family finish first'. No doubt Massa will have the maximum number of relatives and close friends rooting for him in Interlagos next weekend and who knows where that will lead as he fights to retain his Ferrari seat for 2012.

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