Tuesday 23 January 2018

Pit-lane boffins and fresh flesh making F1 season a lottery

Lewis Hamilton heads to Valencia hoping his team can find right balance of science and skill, says David Kennedy

Formula One has never thrown up more permutations than it has this season and the sport is richer for that diversity. But as the season progresses a more stable pattern should emerge. Or will it? Have all seven winners revealed themselves? Is Schumacher or Raikkonen waiting to add to the quota?

We know that certain chassis suit the Pirelli tyres better than others, like Lotus and Sauber. Other teams use their data to better effect, some defy data and go on instinct. Some choose soft or hard tyres more strategically, the number of pit-stops is determining race results, tyres are going off faster than anticipated for which even the deftest of drivers can't compensate. Changing track temperatures is a factor. The list is endless.

By the close of season we'll end up with engineers up and down the pit road all with boffin-like scary eyes and mad hair, not unlike Rotwang in the classic film Metropolis as they discover what works and what doesn't through trial and error.

Above all, this season has been about everyone playing a crucial role. From the person who makes the tea and puts too much sugar in, which causes a lapse in concentration for the head honchos, who then make the wrong call. Okay, maybe not as critical as that but it's not far off.

It's a delicate balance that has some teams reading it just right and others such as Red Bull scratching their heads in despair when Sebastian Vettel, who was leading in Canada, but only scheduled for a one-stop, finds the rubber below him disappearing like parmesan on a cheese grater, as drivers such as Romain Grosjean, who started 15th and finished second, passed effortlessly. Meanwhile, Sergio Perez, with his eye on a Ferrari drive, overtook both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, no doubt with a big wink to the men in red on the pit wall.

Ferrari made the same one-stopper mistake with Alonso and you could say that myopia is another cause of error as internecine duels are putting the wrong focus on who is the danger when, in fact, as the kids would yell in the old Apollo cinema in Dundrum "he's creeping up behind ye mister".

It must have been torture for the leader Alonso, who was being picked off by successive predators virtually every second lap with eight laps to go. He tried in vain to hold on but tyres and the DRS of others rendered him a sitting duck. As if to prove the folly of the one-stop strategy, even Vettel, who by this time had decided to pit for fresh rubber, passed the Ferrari driver on the penultimate lap.

Lewis Hamilton can smile the smile of the righteous for it is sweet nectar when your team and you collectively get one over an opposition who looked invincible until the final reckoning. Lewis has won in Montreal three times now which probably qualifies him for a free maple leaf tattoo.

As Grosjean and Perez shared the podium with Hamilton, it was fresh flesh showing F1 that complacency is a drink for the elderly. These mercurial neophytes showed a clean pair of heels to no less than five world champions.

Next weekend, F1 returns for the European Grand Prix to the street circuit of Valencia. The city, which is carrying 20 per cent of the region's GDP debt, is in dire financial straits and probably wish they didn't have to fulfill another two years of their contract.

So the marina -- which was also the venue for the 2007 America's Cup and has seen its vast investment turn to dust since the onset of the recession -- will put on a brave face to welcome Formula One back.

This is Red Bull territory and it's hard to imagine they won't prevail. But since 2012 has taught us not to second guess, it's safer to say it could be anybody.

The 24-hour Le Mans race finishes at 3.0 today. For the first time two teams run under an Irish flag: Status Grand Prix and Murphy Prototypes. Both will compete in the LMP2 class. Status GP are running three drivers in their Lola Judd-powered car. Dutchman Yelmer Buurman and former Status GP3 driver Alexander Sims from the UK, both of whom are Le Mans 24 Hours rookies, will share the car with Frenchman Romain Iannetta, who is competing in his fourth Le Mans. Status starts eighth in class and 21st overall.

Murphy Prototypes currently compete in the European Le Mans Series. The RLR M-sport run team has two British drivers, Jody Firth and Warren Hughes, who join New Zealander Brendon Hartley, the former Red Bull F1 reserve driver and GP2 competitor. Their Oreca-Nissan starts sixth in class and 19th overall.

Dublin-based green energy entrepreneur Greg Murphy is optimistic of a good result given their line-up. The two Irish teams go head to head as both fight to secure an LMP2 podium.

Toyota is third on the grid in the LMP1 category behind the powerful Audis, who have won the last 10 out of 12 Le Mans. Toyota will attempt to become the second Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans since Mazda's historic victory in 1991, which I was privileged to be involved with.

From a driver's perspective it is a race everyone wants to compete in at some stage in their careers; many of the field are former F1 competitors.

It's also a Mecca for fans of sportscar racing, because the atmosphere is like no other. It's up there with the Indy 500 and the Monaco GP of things to do before you die; that is as a spectator.

If you think F1 is a lottery at the moment, Le Mans puts that in the shade. To run like clockwork over 24 hours at those speeds, when so much can go wrong, is what every driver and team dreams about. But the attrition rate is high because the reality is that anything from a 10 cent washer to a $120,000 engine can let go; or a driver gets fatigued; or a mechanic slips up. There's plenty that conspires to put an end to the gargantuan effort that goes into competing at this historic race.

When the chequered flag is waved this afternoon, we'll find out who is whooping and who is wailing. Meanwhile, the leading car manufacturers have full-page ads prepared for newspapers globally to proclaim victory for their hybrid because a win at Le Mans . . . now that's what sells cars.

Sunday Indo Sport

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