Thursday 23 November 2017

F1: Button making a splash for single-minded McLaren

It's early doors but don't write off Lewis Hamilton -- or Schumi, says David Kennedy

F ormula 1 took its place in life's pecking order last weekend when it bowed its head to forces of nature. As Grand Prix cars hurtled around the Shanghai circuit in northwest China, a devastating earthquake claimed thousands of lives, the second time such a tragedy has coincided with the race. Man's misery often renders noisy machinery irrelevant.

The glacial wastelands of Iceland added to the woes as volcanic ash threatened to leave the F1 fraternity rudderless. Tales of Armageddon were quickly followed by cries of arma-not-geddon-outa-here, as ominous talk of flights being rescheduled for May circulated. But F1 folk enjoy the challenge of the gauntlet of improbability, so regardless of the circumstances, they will cross continents on a hand-glider if it means getting to the next GP.

Some plotted their exits on Trans-Siberian railways, others mapped out other elaborate escape routes, like action man delivering the proverbial box of chocolates against all the odds.

The three airline-owning F1 team principals weren't much better off either, as all flights from Shanghai to Europe were cancelled. The bosses of Virgin Airlines, Air Asia and Kingfisher Airlines found themselves, like everyone else, in the same slow boat out of China.

But, as luck would have it, the lava obligingly simmered and once again all was well in F1-land. Grand Prix racing will resume in two weeks for the first leg of the European races in Barcelona.

As if to compound the gloom, rain descended on Shanghai last Sunday. Jenson Button, aka Mr Rain Man, showed a clean pair of wellies to team-mate Lewis Hamilton. I may well be the last man standing in predicting that Hamilton will conquer Button, or that Michael Schumacher will improve, but we all entitled to our illusions, or delusions.

You have to hand it to Button. He keeps making first-class second-guesses, which is why he's leading the world championship, but Hamilton in my opinion is driving harder and better. But Lewis could find himself on the wrong side of the not dissimilar Alonso/Hamilton bust-up of 2008.

Button is enjoying the perfect honeymoon with McLaren but fine fissures are appearing in the newly plastered partnership. Hamilton accused Button of taking the "easier route" and suggested he might even try that himself. The claws on Hamilton's paws are being sharpened with comments that are designed to incite the double race-winning reigning world champion, but Button is just happy singing in the rain.

After four races it's still wide open. Ferrari has yet to play its ace card, which is race pace. Freak weather has conspired against them and although they won the opening round, they have still to find a rhythm. Sebastian Vettel, meanwhile, is slipping down the points table, but now F1 has reached the safe harbour of Europe, perhaps a Mediterranean climate will suit the calmer moorings Red Bull is desperately seeking. Even the best strategists are being caught out by the call of nature versus the call for rubber.

But world championships are won and lost on opportunity, as McLaren know only too well. They've been slack in previous years getting away from the starting blocks, but not this time. With new modifications due for Barcelona, they are nicely positioned to steal a march on their rivals as the others tripped themselves up in the error-filled pre-European races.

Whither Michael Schumacher? So many things were in place to provide the perfect comeback; Ross Brawn, architect of the German's world titles was waiting to nurture his old friend; Mercedes' backing would pave the way for victory. The man himself had the determination to show he still had it in him to win. But it's not happening. To add insult to injury, his team-mate Nico Rosberg is consistently outpacing him.

When they can detect the tiniest technological fault in racing cars or the faintest sign of metal fatigue there's no such technology to determine the fatigue that lies between the ears of one of the greatest drivers of his generation.

Can the 41-year-old's brain match that of the newbies, some who are young enough to be his children? Are the critics justified or can Schumacher take his case to the European court of comebacks for outrageous allegations of ageism?

Let's look at the facts. Rosberg is currently an impressive second in the championship on 50 points while Schumacher is tenth on 10 points. So is Rosberg five times better than his team-mate? In qualifying, Rosberg has been the dominant of the two, but in the first two races Schumacher was close behind. Schumacher's best result was sixth (Bahrain) while Rosberg notched up two fine third-places (Malaysia and China).

But no matter how great the seven-time world champion once was, nobody, whatever the sport, can expect to pick up where they left off after a three-year break. To suggest he should quit now is the premature calling of the impatient. Let's judge him from the perspective of a full season and see if the faith shown by Brawn, Norbert Haug and himself has been justified.

Schumacher is peddling a variation of the car that won in Barcelona last season with Button. It didn't rain but Rubens Barrichello remarked after his team-mate beat him that "even the sky seems to be in favour of Jenson". For many, the Circuit de Catalunya represents the real start to the season. For Vettel, it needs to offer hope over despair. He can't afford another 'no-fly zone' if he's to get a proper crack at the title.

Historically, Fernando Alonso has disappointed at his home race except in 2006 when he won it for Renault. How he would dearly love to win in a Ferrari, as Felipe Massa did in 2007 and Kimi Raikkonen in 2008. But it is Schumacher who can lay claim to the title 'Champion of Catalunya' for he won the race six times; in 1995 for Renault, in 1996 for Ferrari then four years running for the Maranello team from 2001 to 2004. That's not that long ago, whatever age you are.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for Ireland's Status GP team who are running three drivers in the newly minted GP3 championship, which supports the F1 programme.

In Renault-powered Dallaras, Canadian Robert Wickens, Lebanon's Daniel Morad and Russia's Ivan Lukashevich will try to make a name for themselves in front of F1's hierarchy who are on the lookout for the next Schumacher. Wickens will be hoping that backing from Ireland's 'Mickey Finn' will provide the winning cocktail in his debut race. Good luck to all the drivers.

David Kennedy is Setanta's Formula 1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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