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Forgotten success

Several motorsport titles were decided on Sunday

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.

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Making history – Vettel style

Sebastian Vettel 2011 champion

Double digits - Vettel joins the greats and rewrites the records. (Infiniti)

There can be no more fitting place for a Grand Prix coronation than Suzuka. Yesterday Sebastian Vettel became the 11th driver to be crowned World Champion at the supremely challenging Japanese venue by taking much more than the single point he needed to do the job. His third place sealed the title and made the Red Bull star the youngest ever back-to-back champion in Formula One, booking himself a seat amongst the greats. Throw out your history books, Sebastian Vettel is rewriting them.

There can be little doubt that the Red Bull racer has driven a near-flawless season, I can barely recall any significant errors with the one exception of losing the Canadian Grand Prix to Jenson Button on the final lap. Not bad for the ‘crash kid’ as Martin Whitmarsh of Mclaren dubbed him little more than a year ago. So he has added consistency to formidable speed, a sobering prospect for anybody with designs on a Formula One title over the coming decade. Not only is he eradicating errors Vettel has also pulled off a few daring overtakes, something he was less adept at in 2010. It is fair to say that the guy has taken the step from good to great as he strides to become the benchmark athlete of F1 for years to come.

Of course the title was as good as settled before the weekend begun with Jenson Button needing to win the final five races with Vettel out of the top ten, an impossible task despite the Briton being on the form of his life. Button did everything right, winning a tense race in front of the adoring Japanese fans with Ferrari’s Alonso a surprise second and Vettel taking plenty of points to seal the deal with a third place. This prompted Seb to do that most un-Formula One trick of celebrating with a couple of donuts on his slow-down lap while an overjoyed Button stood atop his car and waved to the Suzuka faithful who mean so much to him.

Both Jenson and Sebastian are as amiable and jolly as top-line drivers get but the start of the race saw a glimpse of title-tension as the Red Bull swept across from pole to ruthlessly cut off the fast starting Button on the run to turn one. This isn’t unprecedented in modern Formula One, although the fact that the two cars overlapped as Vettel ushered Button onto the grass did at least warrant an investigation from the stewards who concluded that it was a fair move. This view wasn’t shared by the English driver who had a quiet word with the world champion before they climbed to the podium.

Behind them was Mark Webber who was hampered by a damaged wing, a legacy of a glancing touch against Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes who scored more solid points in sixth. An already glum Lewis Hamilton suffered a puncture and yet another collision with Felipe Massa but soldiered on to finish fifth with the Brazilian down in seventh. Sergio Perez who battled hard with his fellow midfield runners and with his own health after a nasty fever threatened to ruin his race. Like his rookie rival Paul Di Resta he was looking and sounding rough but the natural painkiller of speed helped the Mexican to score more points in eighth, another sparkling showing. Petrov came home ninth and Rosberg rose from 23rd on the grid to tenth to edge out the frisky Force Indias and Kamui Kobayashi who couldn’t capitalise on his seventh place starting position after a bad getaway.

As in China this year there was only one retirement; a Torro Rosso that shed a wheel. At Shanghai it was Alguersuari and by a bizarre coincidence it was his teammate Buemi this time around – both dropped out of on lap 11 to really add to the symmetry. One safety car punctuated the race to pick up the pieces of Massa’s and Webber’s wings at mid-distance, a sensible move. Aside from that it was another mesmerising display from the class of 2011 who are proving to be one of the finest fields ever, their collective ability to finish races is unprecedented.

None of the new breed epitomise the phrase ‘to finish first, first you must finish’ better than Vettel; third represented one of only two times that he hasn’t appeared on the first or second step of the podium this year. Despite having Adrian Newey in his corner the German richly deserves this second season of success. Mark Webber is no fool but he has been soundly beaten by the boy wonder, a sure sign that there is a lot more than a quick car behind Vettel’s success. At 24 years and 98 days old he becomes the sport’s youngest double world champion. Let’s put those numbers into sharp perspective; Vettel’s childhood hero Michael Schumacher had only taken one of his 91 victories by that age…

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The Singapore Flyer

Bruno Senna Singapore Grand Prix 2011

Formula One cars shine under the Singapore lights. (G.W. Wang)

The Singapore Grand Prix is the video game made real – and for Sebastian Vettel’s rivals his ninth win of the season means it is game over for their championship chances. Although Red Bull Racing are clearly in possession of the fastest machine on the Grand Prix grid, the very young double world champion-to-be deserves high praise for shading perhaps the most talented grid of drivers we have ever known. Despite flashes of supreme speed, it seems that after retaining top spot at the start he was cruising around Marina Bay whilst leading every lap.

That doesn’t mean Seb didn’t have competition; second-placed Jenson Button is on the form of his life in 2011 and Singapore was no different. It was a precise and determined drive that saw the Mclaren man tantalisingly reeling in the runaway Red Bull during the last 15 laps. If I was sat on the pitwall instead of my sofa I would have been sorely tempted to skip that final stop and take a chance on Button’s famed ability to keep a set of tyres together. It’s win or bust time with Vettel now only needing one solitary point to earn his second crown in Japan. I may not be party to the reams of information flowing through the pitlane, but I can’t help but wonder if the tyres were really degrading badly or whether drivers going off line were fooled into believing they had lost all grip. The marbles were plentiful and it was often after being passed that drivers started visibly sliding around. Pirelli insisted that the tyres could run for up to 45 laps – that’s well over an hour’s running. Still, what do I know?

Paul Di Resta certainly made the most of his rubber, running one less set of tyres than the five cars ahead of him. His sixth place was the most convincing performance of his fledgling Grand Prix career despite missing most of Friday practice, this time through mechanical woes rather than reserve driver Nico Hulkenberg getting the oh-so-valuable seat-time. This ability to jump into a car and perform in no-time at all marks the young Scot out as well-endowed in the talent department and it seems he is learning to keep his cool during races. There must be a few people in the works Mercedes squad who wish that Michael Schumacher would retire a second time to give Di Resta or The Hulk a go in a Silver Arrow.

Red Bull’s Mark Webber again had some great dices with Fernando Alonso, the Ferrari driver missing out on the podium and the championship after looking rapid and more than a touch edgy on Friday. As ever Webber started badly while Alonso shot off the blocks brilliantly which set up a nice squabble between the two which lasted most of the evening. Webber twice found unusual spots to get past the Spaniard, including a cracking dive under the Ferrari approaching the vicious turn 10 kerbs on lap 34. It’s easier to be brave when there is trust between drivers, these two have put on quite a show between each other on a few occasions this year.

If Webber and Alonso showed how to overtake, once again it was down to Lewis Hamilton to show us how not to. Clipping Felipe Massa’s rear was clumsy but
ultimately it is just the price that is occasionally paid for being the most exciting racer of his generation. It was a very minor discretion, although clearly not if you are Felipe Massa who suffered a puncture and ranted about Lewis’ on-track conduct after both qualifying and the race. You can’t blame the Brazilian for being frustrated but Lewis nails far more moves than he fluffs so the criticism won’t be taken too seriously in his corner. Indeed, Hamilton fought back to finish in fifth despite taking five trips through the pitlane including a penalty for ruining Massa’s race.

As ever the Singapore Grand Prix was punctuated by the safety car, this time for a frightening incident involving Michael Schumacher who was running quick times but his Mercedes tendency to eat tyres left him desperately dicing for the minor points. After a squabble between Rosberg and Perez ahead of him the seven-time champ misjudged his move on the rookie Mexican and Schumi was sent skywards. He came within a few feet of the fence but luckily he stepped from his shortened Mercedes despite a very hard landing, let’s hope his back isn’t too sore tonight.

It may not have been a classic race by the lofty standards of 2011 but a longer and more arduous test doesn’t exist on the F1 world tour these days, nor is there one with quite such a spectacle for TV. The unique look of Marina Bay was the glittering, flickering, pulsing, neon cherry on top of Formula One’s cake. Vettel didn’t quite seal the title, but after his first lights-to-flag victory of the year you can be sure he won’t miss the match-point at Suzuka, a track that should suit him perfectly.

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Formula One in the wild

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.

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Raging bull

Sebastian Vettel wins the Italian Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel took an emotional win, now for another title. (Infiniti)

No other Grand Prix pulls on the heart quite so hard as Monza bathed in the hazy autumnal sunshine. The sound of racing engines bouncing off the trees, their leaves showing the merest hints of turning, the Tifosi with their flags – there can be no finer place for a race. Sebastian Vettel certainly thinks so as he triumphantly returned to the scene of his first win and delivered a brilliant drive to score his eighth victory of 2011.

Monza was predicted to be a Mclaren track, as was Spa too, but it was Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel who once again bettered the Mercedes and Ferrari-propelled machines. For me it has been these last two races that have elevated Seb to the level of a truly great Grand Prix driver. In both races he made daring 190mph passes without using DRS that were to prove crucial to the outcome of the races – this time he gamely passed the leading Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. After his now customary stunning start Fernando in his Ferrari got the Tifosi cheering and willing his car on using their waving hands. Sadly it wasn’t to last, although Fernando still made it onto the Monza podium in third with the ever-clever Jenson Button between he and the race winner.

Behind them were Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher to make it an unprecedented five world champions in a row for just about the entire race. The old Schumacher came to the races on Sunday, not just in terms of speed but he also brought his suspect racecraft to the table. On multiple occasions he made more than one move on Hamilton to defend his position. Lewis commendably showed patience despite a likely second place being ruined by 27 laps of battling the senior Mercedes driver. There have been people punished for a lot less this year, but Michael received some deliberately stern messages from Ross Brawn on the radio just when the stewards minds were turning to their rulebooks and Lewis was promptly allowed through. Although the Mclaren’s quickly pumped in fast laps after escaping Schumacher’s grasp it is unlikely they would have stopped Vettel who was on peerless form.

Meanwhile Mark Webber made a clumsy move on Felipe Massa and took himself out of the race, although this has barely dented Red Bull’s constructor’s championship hopes. Behind the top dogs Liuzzi in the HRT found himself in the midfield for once, albeit not in the way he hoped. Unfortunately he arrived there backwards and took out notable runners such as Nico Rosberg along the way as the field funnelled into turn one in a typical Monza incident. Other notable moments were Bruno Senna’s first points, another fighting drive from the back for Jaime Alguersuari and a solid points-score for Paul Di Resta.

The championship could be settled next time out in Singapore, although the fight for second is still firmly on. We’ve just had the two tracks where Mclaren should have shone and Vettel still took the honours. The others will do well to even take a win or two during the final fly-away events.

Paddock included Mclaren signing Williams’ Sam Michael as Sporting Director and Jarno Trulli keeping his Team Lotus drive. Except the outfit is unlikely to be known as Team Lotus for too much longer as a deal appears to have been struck between Group Lotus and Tony Fernandez that will see the Renault team re-branded as Lotus and Team Lotus switch to their Caterham brand. A slice of Malaysia’s national airline appears to be the sweetener that Fernandez was looking for, although I’m sure a supply of Lotus Elise patents would go a long way to helping him bolster Caterham’s model range, especially if he finds himself missing out on money in 2012 if changing the name of the Lotus chassis proves problematic with the tail-end charlies…

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On the Vergne of greatness?

Jean-Eric Vergne Formula Renault World Series

Vergne could be the best Red Bull racer since Vettel (ash-brown)

Trophies tell you one thing, the stopwatch can reveal a little more, but ultimately you can only judge a driver by what your gut tells you. Mine says that a chap by the name of Jean-Eric Vergne is a bit special. Following in the line of Carlin’s Red Bull-backed British F3 champions behind Alguersuari and Ricciardo he is now engaged in a thrilling duel with Robert Wickens for the Renault World Series. There are moves afoot to place the Frenchman in a Torro Rosso for Friday practice during the last few Grand Prix and if I was the type to take a flutter I’d bet he will shine.

A cool customer if ever there was one, Jean-Eric Vergne is 21 years of age and already one of the most experienced of those on the edge of F1. He’s got the speed, a healthy dose of aggression and he just so happens to be a dashing young thing too. There is a rare collection of talent in the Renault World Series this year, to shine in this pack you have to be a decent peddler.

Clearly Red Bull believe in him, Jean-Eric appears to be following an identical path to Ricciardo; soon the Frenchman is to make his debut as a Red Bull Racing pilot at the Abu Dhabi young driver test after his practice outings for Torro Rosso. If it is up to Red Bull he would clearly be in Formula One soon, but a spanner could be in the works for Vergne in the form of the impending sale of Scuderia Torro Rosso. From Monza onwards Spanish oil company Cepsa will appear on the car and those better informed than I are predicting that this is part of a wholesale change of ownership for the team formerly known as Minardi. Let us hope that the new owners pick the fruits of Red Bull’s labours and continue to support their young drivers, although Jamie Alguersuari as a Spaniard will be less worried by the presence of a major brand from his homeland than the Swiss Sebastian Buemi. With only two seats at the main Red Bull team, one of which will belong to Sebastian Vettel for as long as he wants it, there could be a few juniors looking for an alternative way into the top flight rather than the rookie-friendly Torro Rosso squad.

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The best of the best

Eau Rouge at Spa 2011

Hallowed ground - fans descend down Eau Rouge after the race. (Raul Soler)

While the glitterati and the glamorous declare Monte Carlo to be the jewel in F1’s crown, the true fans know that it is Spa that is the greatest Grand Prix venue of them all. The sweeps, swoops and straights of the longest circuit on the calendar provided yet another memorable race for the faithful, albeit one that saw a one-two finish for the rampant Red Bulls which did the prospects of a close finish to the season no good at all. Sebastian Vettel’s seventh win of the season all but assures him of his second title but it was a race that could so easily have gone to any driver from the top three teams.

Qualifying was a thrilling mix of wet and dry that didn’t faze pole-meister Vettel who duly lined up first on the grid – he is certainly the speediest Saturday specialist we’ve seen since Mika Hakkinen. The young German put in a calm and committed lap to land the top spot while an older German lined up at the opposite end of the field. Here is where Michael Schumacher made his debut 20 years ago, won his first race 19 years ago, took perhaps his most thrilling victory 16 years ago and claimed his record-smashing seventh title back in 2004. This weekend he added another milestone – starting last on the grid after a wheel went walkies from his Mercedes on his out-lap in qualifying. Not the ideal way to celebrate the start of his third decade at the top level of the sport, but he turned things right around come the race.

Bruno Senna was the hero of Saturday but became the first villain of Sunday as he squandered his excellent seventh place on the grid by running into fellow surprise front-runner Jaime Alguersari at the start. This triggered the traditional first corner calamity from which the Mercedes drivers came out smiling. While Schumacher negotiated the chaos to move right up the field his teammate Nico Rosberg took second place out of turn one and used the straightline pace of the silver arrow to power past Vettel down the Kemmel straight. The lead wasn’t to last, but Nico stayed in contention for the podium until his final stint when Schumacher who was enjoying his best post-comeback performance took fifth from his teammate after an encouraging race for Mercedes.

The Mclaren drivers are never ones for quiet races. The British pair battled hard after a somewhat trying Saturday that saw Button lining up 13th and Hamilton hauled in front of the stewards. From where I was sitting on the sofa Pastor Maldonado’s tackle on Lewis was an instant red card – driving towards another driver after the session has ended just isn’t on. But the aggressive action rated less of a punishment than an engine blow-up according to the stewards as Maldonado’s lunge into the side of Hamilton’s Mclaren warranted a mere five-place grid drop while Lewis got reprimanded for it too.

During the race Button made his way through the field with aplomb. He finished third despite changing a front wing after the opening lap. Jenson
overtakes so coolly and calmly, thoroughly deserving his podium appearance. He may have received help from a safety car but he also suffered hindrance from a damaged rear end.

The aforementioned safety car was for Hamilton who clumsily clipped Kobayashi as the pair diced for position. The resultant knock looked nasty as Hamilton lay prone for a few seconds before getting his breath back and slowly rising out of the car. To his credit Lewis has apologised publicly to the Sauber driver, although it is his Mclaren team who he should be saying sorry to – they gave him a competitive car and now their championship chances are all but gone.

After battling hard in the early-going, Red Bull took their first one-two since May and now look unassailable in both titles. Even more ominous is the fact that the team have completed every lap of the season so far, an astounding feat. Mark Webber looked quicker than Vettel at times although yet again he was compromised by a shocking start. A Red Bull clean-sweep may look ominous but Button was just as quick as them and even Rubens Barrichello in the Williams turned in a faster lap than Vettel giving a little hope to those competitors who usually have none.

There were some cracking overtaking moves, the best of which was surely
Webber’s move on eventual fourth-placed finisher Alonso into Eau Rouge. It was the most daring pass of the year, no question. It brought to mind another heart-in-the-mouth moment between them back at the magnificent Japanese Grand Prix of 2005 when Fernando took to the grass to pass Mark back when their cars weren’t quite so evenly matched. Another DRS-free overtaking move of note was Vettel’s on Rosberg around the outside of Blanchimont – perhaps the quickest corner in F1. It went someway to disproving the doubters assertion that Vettel’s weakness is his ability in traffic. A few more of those and he’ll have us convinced, although I quite like him having at least one fault…

Before the race there was a bit of a bluster over blistered tyres with Red Bull and others lobbying to be allowed a fresh set of Pirelli rubber before the start without the need to start from the pitlane as the rules decree. The Beeb featured some interesting footage of the famous Vettel finger being used to make a point with a Pirelli employee but the powers-that-be rightly told the teams that the rulebook needed to be followed and the tatty tyres held together well enough to give Red Bull the result it wanted. To me there didn’t seem to be much of a problem. Due to the changing conditions the cars were out for the whole of Q3 on the same tyres which were due to start the race. That meant at least ten minutes of quick running along with a long warm-up lap on Sunday afternoon, it seemed obvious that Pirelli’s edgy compounds would be past their best by this point. The fact that Red Bull went beyond Pirelli’s guidelines on camber meant their argument was a moot one anyway. Still, it only added to the intrigue and action as the Red Bull’s appeared more cautious than they might have been in the early running, exactly what the fans wanted to see.

The viewing public were treated to tremendous spectacle all afternoon, Spa is the perfect fit for a Grand Prix machine. While an F1 car around Monte Carlo is akin to a killer whale confined in Seaworld, Spa remains the natural habitat for the world’s most sophisticated racing machines. The fact that the talk of Spa becoming a bi-annual event continues is shameful for F1. While Monaco is given a nearly-free ride the other traditional tracks are being squeezed for the sake of investors in the sport that are clearly only here for the short-term. Anybody with their eye on the long-game would surely accept a compromise that would see a guaranteed place on the calendar for the most inspiring and exciting venue on the calendar and leave the Tilke-dromes to play the swapping game.

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