Formula 1: End of Sector Two

Long story short, most of the trends I had spotted back in June have continued.

I suggested in the first report that Lewis Hamilton was his own worst enemy in his quest for the 2014 title, but now it seems his own Mercedes team are most likely to deny him the title now. He hasn’t had a sound qualifying since the Spanish Grand Prix, which he won. To recap – first there was “Mirabeau-gate” in Monaco, which cannot be proven as intentional by Nico Rosberg, but meant that Hamilton could not challenge him for pole either way. He made an error on his best lap in Canada and had to settle for second again. A spin on his last attempt in Austria, which may have been a brake bias problem or his own undoing, left him ninth. A misjudgement of weather conditions in Britain left him sixth. Brake failure resulted in a crash and starting at the back in Germany. And a catastrophic engine meltdown in Hungary resulted in a fire so severe that literally everything behind the front axle had to be rebuilt or replaced, not to mention a pitlane start.

Yet from those lowly starting positions in the last four rounds, he has clawed his way back to second, first, third and third respectively. True, Rosberg did have his own mechanical woes that led to his retirement from the British event, but it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Hamilton would have clear air between himself and his teammate in the title race without these mishaps.

Red Bull’s Daniel “The Teeth” Ricciardo remains best of the rest, and a Pretty Cool Guy; he wears a honey badger on his helmet and doesn’t afraid of anything. Both his Canadian and Hungarian GP wins only came after daring overtaking manoeuvres in the dying laps, so you can never say he hasn’t worked for either. He also continues to be the most universally likeable bloke on the grid, which is perhaps even more remarkable than his winning ways alone – usually the two are mutually exclusive features. Sebastian Vettel (that’s quadruple reigning world champ Sebastian Vettel) remains winless, and more significantly, can’t seem to hold a candle to his new rival either in qualifying or in race craft.

Fernando Alonso is now the only driver maintaining a 100% pointscoring record in 2014, after Nico Hülkenberg’s run came to an end in the tyre wall at Hungary. Alonso came agonisingly close to a heroic win at the Hungaroring, and the fact that sixth place at the same event for Kimi Räikkönen was the Finn’s best result of the entire year speaks volumes for the chasm between the two Ferrari men in the drivers’ standings. Räikkönen is lucky still to be driving for the Prancing Horse for another reason – his 150mph spear into a bridge support on the opening lap at Silverstone measured a wincing 50g impact, enough to puncture through the Armco barrier and require the race to stop for an hour to repair it (the right call, whatever nonsense Niki Lauda cares to spout otherwise).

Williams still have the uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas were the first and thus far only drivers to break Mercedes’ stranglehold on qualifying when they locked out the front row in Austria, yet they still ended up fourth and third at the flag without having looked like trying to take the fight to the Silver Arrows. Massa has also shown an unfortunate propensity for being involved in blameless collisions with other drivers, whether on the last lap in Canada with Sergio Pérez, or on the first laps in Britain and Germany with Räikkönen and Kevin Magnussen respectively. The car is clearly very, very good indeed, but it seems to be in the hands of a team who are so used to being backmarkers that they don’t know quite how to handle their sudden return to success.

Force India have made significant strides in the wrong direction over the summer months. From being podium finishers in Bahrain, they now struggle for top-10 results; things hit a nadir in Hungary as Hülkenberg and Pérez collided on track, before ending their races in separate accidents. Happily for fans of McLaren, meanwhile, they have gone on an upward trend, to the stage where they sit a single point behind Force India in the standings, and look set to surpass them at the next race. Magnussen and Jenson Button seem fairly evenly matched, which doesn’t bode well for the Englishman, given the vast difference in their levels of experience at the top of the sport.

Jean-Éric Vergne hasn’t exactly been awful this year – it’s just that Daniil Kvyat has been marginally better, and with two years’ less running than the Frenchman. Both, however, have been frustrated by chronic reliability issues with their cars. It might be a sign of my own growing old, but my initial reaction to the news of Toro Rosso signing nappy-dweller Max Emilian Verstappen (his full name, no joke) to replace Vergne for the 2015 campaign was one of jaw dropping and guttural choking. The day I became older than a current driver on the starting grid (to wit, when Sauber signed Esteban Gutiérrez at the start of 2013) was bad enough, but Verstappen is 16 years old. Sixteen! He can’t even legally drive a road car in the UK and he’s a frickin’ F1 driver! For his sake I hope he doesn’t score a podium finish in the first year, because it’ll just be embarrassing for all when the police confiscate his champagne on the rostrum and slap him with an ASBO.

Closer to the present day, two abrupt driver replacements at the back end of the grid have left everyone scratching their heads. Max Chilton vacated his Marussia seat over “contractual issues” for American racer Alexander Rossi to make his début, only for the team to reverse their decision a few hours later. Chilton’s accountant later apologised for being late to write this month’s cheque. Kamui Kobayashi, meanwhile, has made way for Germany’s Andre Lotterer – a 32-year-old former Le Mans winner with precisely zero F1 experience. Quite where the demand for Lotterer’s presence in the team came from is a bit of a mystery, though his manager did recently adopt a position as an “adviser” to the Caterham executive board…

Still, anything could be worth giving Caterham the surprisingly realistic chance to catch any of the three teams immediately above them in the championship table. Lotus’s woeful season continues to be an unfunny joke for Romain Grosjean’s frittering talent, while Pastor Maldonado continues to be an unfunny joke to the entire paddock – I’ve seen the crash he had in Belgian third practice three times, and short of actually having his eyes closed coming towards the Pouhon corner, I can’t work out how he managed to screw up so badly. Erstwhile respectably mid-grid Sauber are having a quieter, yet equally desperate year – still planted on nul points after eleven rounds, they face their worst showing in over two decades as a constructor, unless Gutiérrez or Adrian Sutil can better one of their many 11th or 12th places into the top-10 result they so desperately need.

Right, Spa kicks off in under half an hour. Once more unto the breach!



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