Reflecting on 2011 - titles were sadly overshadowed on Sunday. (Paz Chauhan)
The motorsport world was busy handing out trophies last Sunday before a lovely day of racing was cruelly ruined by the terrible events in Las Vegas. While I can’t quite bring myself to deliver a full review of each it is worth noting the titles won and lost over a packed yet bleak weekend for the sport.
Formula One saw another Sebastian Vettel victory at the somewhat sterile environment of Yeongam in South Korea. More importantly but no less inevitably Red Bull wrapped up the Constructors Championship with Mark Webber finishing third after a thrilling duel with Lewis Hamilton who came home second after starting on pole for the first time this year, a great effort from the 2008 champion.
Unfortunately Moto GP was a little disappointing for all but the Aussies as Casey Stoner romped to a home win at Phillip Island and clinched the final 800cc title in the process. Good on Casey and Honda who have been the class of the field in 2011, but the edge was taken off the race by the non-starts for Yamaha’s Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo, the latter’s hopes of defending his title were left in tatters after a very nasty finger injury on race morning.
Back home at Silverstone the BTCC boys had a refreshingly respectful end to the season despite heading into the final triple-header of the year with five still in title contention. Matt Neal’s win in race one set up an all-Honda duel between himself and Gordon Shedden as Plato and Jackson suffered punctures while Nash just didn’t quite have the ultimate pace although that didn’t stop him taking the indie trophy in his dated Vauxhall Vectra. Shedden seized the initiative with a win in the second race but it was Matt Neal who kept it cool to take his third title in the final race of the day as Tom Chilton won the reverse grid race.
Honda have fought against a competitive field, a certain moaning rival and even against themselves to take the crown with a rich variety of different machinery chasing them. I just wish the final rounds were held at Brands, Silverstone is too smooth and fast to lend itself to truly thrilling touring car racing in the modern era.
Then there is the crown that is destined to be forgotten; Dario Franchitti’s Indycar title. It is a trophy he will barely be able to look at, champagne will be toasted to the memory of a fallen comrade rather than sprayed in celebration. He is the Indy driver du jour, but this isn’t the moment to dwell on that. It was already a rough year for Indycar even before the horror of Sunday, let’s hope for a brighter 2012 for the fastest and friendliest racing series of them all.
It is easy to forget just how impressive a Formula One car can be. Seeing the thoroughbred machines around a demanding section of circuit such as the slalom of Silverstone’s Becketts or the big dipper at Eau Rouge is one thing but taking them completely away from their comfort zone is the only way to truly appreciate how viciously fast and edgy a Grand Prix steed can be. The video above features David Coulthard taking a 2009 -vintage Red Bull around the ranches and the streets of Texas before heading to the forthcoming Circuit of the Americas of Texas, the pompously-titled track that will herald the comeback of Formula One to the USA. It currently only exists as a life-size outline in the dirt, who needs to see another F1 car on tarmac anyway? With all the Tilke-designed tracks dominating the Formula One decade we have become numb to the appeal of wide-expanses of flat grey roads, this is something a touch more exhilarating. The glorious slow motion shots convey the energy expended by a racing car even when the driver is being told to reign in the horses and temper the urge to tread the outer-limits of physics in the pursuit of speed.
OK, so driving on dirt, ice or on a beach is only done in an F1 car for show rather than sport, but there is the occasional circuit that takes Formula One into the unknown and gives us a glimpse of their fury, none more so than this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix. The track around Marina Bay is the video game made real, the kind of venue that F1’s futurist ethos and extreme excess deserves.
With the demise of true road racing the street circuit has been elevated to the ultimate challenge for man and machine. Walls reach out and touch the fleet cars, the usually unmoved suspension bucks on the drain covers that we barely notice in our daily existence; it is the morning commute on fast forward. Nelson Piquet once likened driving at Monaco to riding a bicycle around your living room. That must have been muttered by the Brazilian after a dry race, throw in some rain and it becomes even dafter than that. If the weather forecasts are to be believed then the Marina Bay track could become more trying due to the seasonal downpours in that part of the world. Greasy, bumpy city streets lined with solid walls are tough enough in the wet but Singapore’s joker is the fact it is run well into the night under powerful artificial illumination that threatens to dazzle the drivers as it reflects off standing water. The floodlights could very well live up to their name.
There are few scenarios short of Red Bull’s antics in Texas that will turn the F1 car into as much of a fish out of water as what awaits them this Sunday. Even without the added complication of rain the DRS system and Pirelli’s adventurous tyre compounds will provide extra excitement in a race that scarcely needs more livening up unlike the other modern cookie-cutter tracks.
Although Red Bull are due to wrap up the titles sooner or later, Sebastian Vettel is likely going to have to wait to be crowned for a second time. If Vettel wins then Alonso and the Mclarens will need to be on the podium with him to keep their slim hopes alive. There is a great chance of this; Fernando has been the driver to beat here with while Lewis Hamilton is the ultimate street-brawler who exhibited admirable restraint last time out at Monza when faced with Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes which failed to show up on the radar of race control. Whatever the result Singapore has fast become one of the truly great Grand Prix hosts, if nothing else it will be great to see the grid battling for glory in as unique a setting as any. There won’t be any cowboys or lassos, but if anything I think it will be more of a spectacle.
Webber wasn't alone in smiling after qualifying at the 'Ring. (pic Infiniti)
So Lewis Hamilton delivered a “wicked” lap that was “as good as it gets” to split the Red Bulls in qualifying for tomorrows German Grand Prix. Mark Webber sits on the pole with a lap that he said he could barely of driven any better, stoking his hopes to finally lead some laps and win in 2011. Finally banished from the front row is his teammate Sebastian Vettel who lines up third ahead of the two Ferraris, Nico Rosberg was a competitive sixth with Button, Sutil, Petrov and Schumacher completing the top 10.
According to the top two drivers they both drove the perfect lap – fast, committed, yet seemingly undramatic. But the perfect lap means different things to different people. Nico Rosberg out-pacing his illustrious partner is nothing new, but 1.2 seconds ahead of Schumacher at their home race will seem like perfection where he is sitting. You don’t even need to finish ahead of your teammate to feel you have done the perfect job, if not the perfect lap. Karun Chandhok finished just eight tenths behind Heikki Kovalainen for Team Lotus, the Indian driver lines up 21st having only been announced as replacing the troubled Jarno Trulli a few days ago. Given the circumstances faced by Karun it is fair to say that this was the closest to the ideal lap that he could have delivered and he is now in the frame to achieve his dream of driving in the first Indian Grand Prix and beyond.
Even at the tail of the field the HRTs were fighting hard with the other new(ish) teams and Daniel Ricciardo in only his second Formula One qualifying session was within thousandths of Tonio Liuzzi, a guy who has been in F1 since 2005. Again, for the rookie this must have felt like the perfect lap, even last place can feel special when you are in F1.
Red Bull-backed Australians bookended the time sheets in a qualifying hour that promises much for tomorrow, especially with Vettel finally out of the top two. Sebastian obviously will not be chuffed with this at his home race, even if the Grand Prix circus is itching to knock him off his pedestal everywhere he goes. Surprisingly the Mclaren looks competitive on the harder compounds as well as the softs, at least in Lewis’ hands during qualifying, though Mark Webber produced a special drive on F1’s last visit to the Nurburgring to overcome a penalty and score his debut win so he has still installed himself as the favourite even if all eyes were on Hamilton. The weather could be the curveball that wipes the smile off a few faces on race day, though you suspect that Hamilton could find himself with an even bigger grin if the rain comes. He’ll need to do an awful lot more “wicked” laps to keep this competitive top five in check either way.