The FIA World Rallycross Championship is one of the most exciting motorsport championships in the world. Races may be decided within a 4 minute period but the drama is unlike anything else.
Over a race weekend, you can get up to 100 races which includes supporting Rallycross series and the World RX itself. It's brilliant for a fan who's going to watch. You can walk up and down the paddock without any extra cost so you can really get up close and personal with the cars and like F1, World RX has a host of entertainment when there's no on track action. It's very family friendly.
I haven't been to an event myself but that will all change when I visit Silverstone this weekend to go to the Speedmachine Festival to see the World RX right in front of my own eyes. I can't wait and I just hope the weather stays dry which probably won't happen considering it has rained at some point in all of the World RX events so far this year! The entertainment off the track is expected to be good but it's what's happening on the track which I can't wait to see.
So how does it all work?
The drivers will take part in 4 qualifying heats to try and get through to the semi-finals. There are 3-5 drivers in each heat. Position doesn't matter too much since it's all about the time you set compared to everyone else. Each qualifying heat is 4 laps.
-The driver with the fastest overall race time after 4 laps is declared the qualifying winner of that qualifying which will give you intermediate points based on your position
-This is repeated for Q2, Q3 and Q4 with and at the end, all of the intermediate points are added up and the 12 drivers with the most points in the 'intermediate standings' move into the semi-finals.
-The semi-finals are 6 laps and it's all about finishing in the top 3 of your semi-final. Odd numbered positions from qualifying go to semi-final 1 and evens to semi-final 2.
-The final is an all out scrap to win and get on the podium of the event.
It might sound confusing on paper or when explained but it's pretty easy to get the hang of after you've watched an event.
The start of a RX race is so intense and the drivers will trade paint and nudge each other to get into turn 1 first. In the last event in Belgium, we saw cars rolling over and on 2 wheels as the drivers leaned on each other. You can't beat the sound of 600BHP, turbocharged rallycross cars with drivers who are super pumped up with adrenaline flowing through them as they try to react to the lights to beat everyone else off the line and to get the perfect launch to do 0-62 in less than 2 seconds.
The joker lap (a longer route which you have to take once in the race) adds some really good strategy which means that timing when to do your joker lap can make or break your race. It means that you can jump people through an undercut or overcut and your spotter (the person advising or ordering you to do the joker lap because they can see the gaps) has a really important job. The team, engineers and mechanics have an equally important job to turn the cars around to get them as good as possible for each qualifying heat, the semi-finals and the final because there's not a lot of time to get the cars fixed and ready if you have some damage, which is always likely in rallycross.
You don't have hours to fix a car like in F1, you have minutes.
The driver line-up is pretty mega. The 9-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb is probably the biggest name in the series and we all know that he is no slouch. Petter Solberg won the inaugural series in 2014 and defended his title in 2015 to add to his WRC championship win. His driving style where he just backs the car in and slides it whenever he can is fascinating to watch.
You then have Mattias Ekstrom who is a 2-time champion in the highly competitive DTM series. He is very aggressive and always gets his elbows out. "Go hard or go home" is his motto and it awarded him with the championship in 2016.
The defending champion is the super consistent Johan Kristoffersson, arguably the best RX racer out there. He is the winningest driver (11 wins) and 9 of those have come in the last 12 months. That is incredible considering it is so easy to collide and damage your car in a semi-final or final, or to have some bad luck and reliability issues with the team having to fix the cars so quickly. He has been so impressive and World RX has given him a fantastic reputation which he thoroughly deserves.
Timmy Hansen also now has a great reputation and this season he has suddenly become a fan favourite. He is so neat and tidy but has learnt to be aggressive and he has proved that you don't need a joker lap to get passed cars as you can overtake on the track itself even though it's tight and twisty.
Another driver who I had never heard of before World RX is Andreas Bakkerud who, like Max Verstappen, has his own set of fans who travel to all of the races. He's always had a rivalry with Solberg as to who is the best Norwegian and he made history in 2016 in Hell (that's a place in Norway) by being utterly dominant and winning all four of his Qualifier races, the first man to do so, before going on to win his Semi-final and the Final.
Those are currently the "Big 6" drivers who all drive for Volkswagen, Peugeot and Audi. When a few of them are on track together then you can guarantee fireworks.
Watching the cars slide out of the corners and the nose of them dipping down as the drivers slam on the brakes and drift through the turns whilst scraping their front bumpers across the barrier or armco is something that you can't really teach so the very best rallycross drivers have a natural talent from being millimetres from a complete rollover and a big scary accident.
It's hard to describe how hard the drivers are pushing, especially in the semi-finals and the final. They're absolutely on it and you have to be or else you will have no chance of winning. They leave nothing left on the table and throw the cars in and out of the corners like it's their life depends on it. It's incredible and so exciting.
Anybody can get to the final in rallycross and from then on in, with a bit of luck, who knows what will happen. It's a hard-fought season long war with many battles which can get heated at times. That's what's so great about the sport. If you give it everything as a driver then with a decent car you can go far into an event. The big manufacturers still have a bit of an advantage but that is negated straight away if you can get ahead of them on track at the start.
Some if my favourite moments in motorsport have come from the FIA World Rallycross Championship. Here's some of them:
Kevin Eriksson's amazing move around the outside of everybody in Germany 2016. A hero moment which gave him the win in the final.
The 2015 Final in Sweden which saw a last lap, last corner move for the win by Timmy Hansen in a battle of the Swedes. Unfortunately Hansen was penalised.
(Click on the bold parts to watch)
The tracks all have their own characteristics. Whether it's the placement of the joker lap, or perhaps the high kerbs which allow the drivers to slide their way around the circuit which not only looks great but it's the best way to attack the circuit. The weather can turn any of the rallycross tracks into what feels like an ice rink. They're already sliding around and carefully applying the throttle pressure so that they don't spin whilst judging how far away from the barriers they are. Add some rain (or even snow, as we saw in Montelegre this year) then it's just so easy to make a mistake and the gravel section turns into dirt and mud. It's a fascinating natural evolution to tracks which are less than a kilometre long.
The coverage of any sport is vital to the enjoyment you get. World RX's main commentator, Andrew Coley, deserves a lot of credit because his passion for the sport really comes through and he makes the broadcast just as exciting as the action. He's become one of my favourite commentators and I love the way he talks through the races with his entertaining voice. He is a true fan who wants to see the best competition possible and his delivery of the races and paddock walks are perfect. A lot of people can learn that you need passionate people when it comes to commentary or punditry.
There's no doubt that the series is in a pretty good place at the moment. They have the stars; the young drivers who take the fight to the old heads; excellent TV coverage; a good mix of locations and tracks and more importantly the racing and the excitement is top-notch. It's very different to other motorsports but it works.
Rallycross has been around for a very long time and it now has a world championship with world class drivers and tracks. It might not be increasing in status like Formula E is, but it's still rising. One day, we will lose the cars and the engines that we have now which makes the sport so good. Electric rallycross cars are already being talked about so it's right that we salvage every second of what we have now because modern day World RX if phenomenal in my opinion.
The WRX continues this weekend at Silverstone as part of the Speedmachine Festival.
Lets be honest, the Spanish Grand Prix was the worst race of the year so far. After two excellent races in 2016 and 2017, normal service was resumed as we went back to a rather typical race around the Circuit de Catalunya.
Lewis Hamilton dominated the weekend as Mercedes topped all of the sessions over the weekend. Valtteri Bottas missed pole position by just 0.04 of a second and that difference could have cost him the win. Had he started on pole then it could have been him who eased to victory. Instead it was Hamilton who seemed relieved that the car could be as good as it was at the latter stages of last year and that the potential to romp home to a 5th world championship is there for the taking.
But where has the Mercedes pace come from? Coming into the weekend it was known that Pirelli would use a new tyre tread for the Spain, British and French Grand Prix. It's still not clear who brought the blistering and the concerns to Pirelli but it is thought that it was Mercedes. Was it the correct thing to do from Pirelli. Normally, I give a really clear opinion on everything to do with F1 but I'm in two minds about this.
Teams shouldn't have to adapt to something as big as tyres because it's unfair. Mercedes did a better job in 2014-2017 and so far this year, Ferrari have done a really good job by working the tyres at their optimum and to have a wider operating window this season. Perhaps, Pirelli should have at least tried to use the existing compounds (the ones used at all of the races prior to last weekend) at Barcelona and, if there were hints of serious enough problems, then new tyres should have been at the ready.
Everyone knows what happened at Indianapolis 2005 when Michelin did not have confidence in the tyres for that race. Did they allow them to change the tyres? Why should it be different with Pirelli this year? Some teams adapted better to the provided tyre. You could argue that the tyres should be a fixed factor even though safety will always be put in favour of competition. Is it fair that the tyres have changed after no testing with the new tread?
As I write this, I do think I am in favour of the change. Two days of in-season testing have just been completed and after the first day of testing, Sebastian Vettel said that the tyre changes were the right thing to do and images from the cars including the Ferrari show severe blistering on the tyres which weren't used during the Spanish Grand Prix weekend. For Vettel to say this stops any argument that Pirelli were wrong. The 4-time world champion said:
“Obviously you don't get the chance to revisit these kind of decisions that are made but we did it today and the result is that if we used the normal tyres on Sunday, it would have probably been worse, so it was the correct call.
The in-season test has proved that Pirelli were right but it's just so easy for fans to criticise them and I do feel sorry for the Italian manufacturer. Pirelli's contract ends at the end of 2019 and they haven't had an easy time in F1 compared to the likes of Bridgestone. Pirelli doesn't need F1 and it's more of a question of does F1 need Pirelli? If they can find another tyre supplier who will do a better job than Pirelli then I don't think so.
The big problem I have with the tyres this year is that the operating window seems to be very random. So many factors have to come together and the teams are almost lucking into finding the optimal window. This shouldn't be the case. Having some randomness is good but not when a lot of your speed comes from the tyres rather than aerodynamics. In other words, the tyres are playing too big a part in how qualifying and the race pans out. You can only blame Pirelli for this because there's no consistency in how the tyres operate. I honestly think that Ferrari couldn't find the window which is why even with fresher tyres for his last stint, Vettel couldn't get anywhere near to Verstappen.
I know it's a tough track to follow but Vettel lacked pace on Sunday. Mercedes have been the best in the races this year, on pace but Vettel and Ferrari really struggled. Red Bull seemed to have mighty pace on Friday but that didn't result into anything on Sunday which is very strange. Yes, the conditions were very different but the tyres caused a complete change to who had the speed and who didn't.
It was interesting to hear Lewis Hamilton tell Bottas in the cool down room after the race that he should have helped him by towing him down to turn 1 so that Vettel didn't overtake him. You wouldn't get Hamilton saying that to Rosberg or Alonso when they were his teammates and as I said earlier, Bottas had been doing a really good job since his nightmare start to the season in Australia. I don't see the line-up changing unless Bottas has another mid-season slump.
It was a quiet start until turn 3 where Romain Grosjean lost the rear of his car after losing downforce from his teammate in front of him who was having his own slide. The whole field were struggling but when Grosjean went off the track, he slid and stupidly decided to put his foot to the floor, which was always going to spin him around, and spin into the pack of cars who were all coming towards him. It was a complete brain fade but probably one of the most stupid ways of seen somebody try to correct a big slide.
To try and go across the track when you know that half of the field has to avoid you is very silly to say the least. It's the kind of thing you would do on a racing game when you get angry. What was he thinking? Creating a massive burnout whilst putting your car in the most dangerous place possible is ludicrous!
He's very lucky to only get a 3 grid place penalty for Monaco. Personally, I would have given him a 10 grid place penalty. The collision could have been a lot worse had Hulkenberg or Gasly hit Grosjean in the side of his car or if Grosjean was directly facing the field and he clashed front wings with another front wing. This comes after another crucial mistake when running in 6th place in Baku when he crashed all by himself under the safety car. To be fair Ricciardo spun after the VSC in Spain but that was when he was about to get going again, not when he was trundling around at a much slower speed.
Grosjean has scored no points this season which is remarkable considering the Haas car has had the potential to score points in most of the races this year. It wasn't his fault in Australia of course but as I've said in previous articles, that mistake from the team in Melbourne has proven very costly. Grosjean hasn't used that to motivate him to recover all of those lost points and instead we're seeing the return of the Grosjean we saw in 2012 who got involved in multiple incidents. He must score points soon or the end of his F1 career will be on the horizon.
Out in front, not much happened. Ferrari and Vettel were always going to go on a 2 stopper because of their high degradation compared to everyone else so they used the VSC to lose less time. A slow stop probably cost Vettel a podium because he may have got ahead of Verstappen on the exit. With overtaking proving difficult around the track, perhaps with hindsight they should have stayed out but Ferrari have pushed the tyres very far before and suffered from the consequences (Silverstone 2017 and Spa 2015 are recent examples).
A bad day became worse when Kimi Raikkonen suffered from a wiring problem cut the power to the left-hand cylinders in the V6 engine in the back of the Ferrari which was new for Barcelona. The team have said that they shouldn't have to change the engine for Monaco but with reliability being pivotal this year, Raikkonen might be one of the first victims of some grid penalties due to extra engine parts.
Kevin Magnussen had another excellent qualifying and race to prove that he could be a driver who had an outside chance of taking a Ferrari seat. He's only 25-years-old which I always find staggering. His behaviour can get to some of the other drivers as proven in FP1 when Magnussen nearly caused an aeroplane crash as he moved very late on Charles Leclerc down the main straight. There was no need for it and he just needs to be careful at times. I do love his style though and F1 needs drivers like him, who are ruthless and very aggressive. As long as the Dane doesn't become dangerous (which I admit he had been before) then he can do very well in F1.
I said Charles Leclerc needed to back up his 6th place in Baku with another points finish in Spain and he did exactly that. He battled with Fernando Alonso very well and his speed is now coming through as he starts to beat his teammate, Marcus Ericsson, regularly in every session. After disappointing results from GP2 champions, Stoffel Vandoorne and Jolyon Palmer recently, Leclerc could be the real deal. I hope so and should he continue this fine form then Ferrari should put him alongside Vettel sooner rather than later.
Fernando Alonso made it 5 points scoring finishes from 5 races. The upgrades on the McLaren didn't quite give them the performance that I expected. The car is probably 6th best behind the big 3 and Haas and Renault. It's not what McLaren want though and they need to be right with Red Bull by the end of the year to deem it a success. Something that will be unacceptable for them is if they are the worst team with a Renault engine. Monaco will be another chance to get some good points but with such high expectations from themselves and their fans, they are nowhere near were they need to be. The base is good but can they convert their upgrades into podiums this year. It's unlikely at the moment.
It's been a strange season so far as the favourite for the championship is still very unclear. This is great though and the team that has the pace will only know when the cars are actually on track. We go into every race weekend not knowing the pecking order and the potential for a classic F1 season is there.
Lewis Hamilton dominated the Spanish Grand Prix as Mercedes took a deserved 1-2 as Valtteri Bottas took 2nd place. Max Verstappen took his first podium of the year, despite a damaged front wing, by fending off Sebastian Vettel. Not lots to talk about this week but the new tyre tread that was brought to this race has caused havoc in the F1 world and it will keep people talking until the next race.
Here's the ratings, as always the order you see below is the finishing order of the race:
2018 Spanish Grand Prix - Catalunya
Lewis Hamilton: 9/10
Valtteri Bottas: 8/10
Max Verstappen: 8.5/10
Sebastian Vettel: 8/10
Daniel Ricciardo: 5/10
Kevin Magnussen: 9/10
Carlos Sainz: 8/10
Fernando Alonso: 8/10
Sergio Perez: 7/10
Charles Leclerc: 9/10
Lance Stroll: 5.5/10
Brendon Hartley: 4.5/10
Marcus Ericsson: 6.5/10
Sergey Sirotkin: 4/10
Stoffel Vandoorne: 5.5/10
Esteban Ocon: 7/10
Kimi Raikkonen: 7/10
Nico Hulkenberg: 6/10
Pierre Gasly: 6.5/10
Romain Grosjean: 2/10
Race winner Lewis Hamilton tops the ratings this week with a score of 9 and Kevin Magnussen joins him with a score of 9 as well with tremendous race pace and an excellent qualifying. Romain Grosjean's plain stupid mistake took himself and two other cars out which has gave him a 3 grid place penalty for Monaco and the lowest rating from me.
The rest of this season's driver ratings can be seen here...
Lewis Hamilton currently leads the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship is we head into Europe for the first time as this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix should give us a much clearer idea of what to expect this year.
It's a proper race track and although it has its own unique characteristics with high degradation on not just the rear tyres but the front tyres as well and a relatively abrasive circuit which has been resurfaced over the winter which will give us some unknowns this weekend. Each sector can be split into 3 sections which require different parts of the car to work strongly.
The very short first sector requires a good top end speed, especially since it's one of the longest runs from the start to turn one of the year for the race. Turn three will be even mightier this year and it could even be flat-out in qualifying this year as the aerodynamics of the cars improve more and more (even with the halo). You then have sector 2 which has medium-high speed corners were you really want a good front end to get the car turned in and to stay flat-out through turn 8 in qualifying trim and to try and lift off as little as possible in the races. They say that the quickest car in sector 3 is the quickest car at Monaco. You want a stable rear end so that you don't spin up the tyres and slide the car too much. A good change of direction is needed and a car that can ride the high kerbs in the mickey-mouse chicane at the end. The combination of low to high speed turns of the Circuit de Catalunya is why the teams go testing there in the pre-season because you can really get a good idea of where you're at.
Spain traditionally sees some massive upgrades from all of the teams including B-spec cars (cars that are almost completely different to what they were the last time you saw them). It makes the practice sessions on Friday even more interesting as we see if the field has closed up and who has made leaps up the pecking order. A lot of eyes will be on McLaren as they have already said that the car they bring to Spain is the car they expected to start the season with. That means they're 4 races behind, or nearly 2 months. Even a team like McLaren won't catch that up this season. A brand new front wing is rumoured to be the biggest thing that we will notice from the human eye on the car but they really need to make the car work and find some speed.
It's qualifying trim were the MCL33 is struggling. The race pace is okay but for some reason, it's down in the speed traps compared to the Red Bull (which has the same Renault engine) and the chassis is not as good as they made out when they had the Honda engine. The Honda engine is the smallest on the grid and apparently the lightest as well. Perhaps this made McLaren think that their chassis was really good when the engine actually helped it in the corners. A longshot I know but they can only blame the aerodynamics of the car now for a lack of performance and they MUST beat Renault and start to get on the tails of the top 3 teams very soon or else patience will wear thin and changes at the top will be made. Fernando Alonso won't be too patient as well having suffered 3 seasons with the Honda engine and not having an F1 win since Spain in 2013. His Toyota commitments in the WEC might be the only thing keeping him happy, especially after the win last weekend in Spa. It's a massively important race for McLaren and their fans.
At the front it has been very close and it's been quiet in terms of what to expect from Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull in terms of upgrades. I don't see one of them pulling away and if anything, it should get closer and closer as the season goes on. One thing we will see as a new tyre tread not only for this race but Paul Ricard and Silverstone as well after Mercedes "highlighted" to Pirelli that there is a problem with lots of load on the tyres and overheating issues. Less tread means less movement in the rubber, thus less overheating. In 2013, Mercedes had huge tyre degradation and this story about special tyres for the three races mentioned above was revealed a month ago so perhaps they were worried that they would have similar problems this year.
It doesn't seem to be the case though as Bottas was able to close Vettel down in Bahrain and more evidently in China, he was able to stay with Vettel to get a big enough undercut. He didn't exactly drop "off the cliff" as they say. Mercedes "highlighting" an issue, though must be to get a performance advantage because that's what they do. While Pirelli being Pirelli meant that they were going to listen because if tyres failed, then Mercedes would tell the media that they told Pirelli that there might be an issue, resulting in further bad press for the tyre company. The Italian manufacturer can't afford to take risks as they already don't have the trust of F1 fans and are unlikely to ever truly make the fans happy. I do feel sorry for them though and as I said before the season, because whatever they do they can't win.
Three of the last four races in Spain have been excellent in my opinion, with the last 2 being classics. You may not think that now but when we look back at them, I think you'll change your opinion as people normally do as time passes. 2014 saw a mini Bahrain-esque fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as Hamilton held off a charging Rosberg in a very tense race for both sets of fans as they pushed the limits again and were desperate to win. 2016 saw the infamous clash at turn 4 as Rosberg was in the wrong engine mode and Hamilton tried to go for a gap that was closing and he went onto the grass and took himself and his teammate out. Dramatic stuff and there was more drama as Max Verstappen held off Kimi Raikkonen to become the youngest ever F1 winner in his first ever race for Red Bull. An unforgettable day.
Last year was a pure motorsport fight for victory. Hamilton and Vettel were in their own league as they traded lap times and they pushed every single centimetre of the 307KM race that they could. No mistakes were made which I always find staggering when they're pushing so hard, and an alternative strategy from Mercedes to go on the opposite tyre compound to what Vettel did, won them the race. Some help from the VSC did make things easier but we saw a fantastic duel as they touched wheels when Vettel came out of the pitlane with Hamilton later chasing the German down through lapped traffic. He swooped around the outside to take a hard-fought victory. For me, that was the race of the year as we had two of the best drivers of this generation go toe to toe in a heavyweight fight. I loved every second of it.
People say that it's a boring track that creates boring races yet for some reason, something always happens in Spain. If the high-speed corners and slow final sector should mean a procession but the long home straight with DRS means that you can overtake. The high tyre degradation does help as we usually see a 2 stop race which allows for different strategy plays from the teams. As long as we get something similar to the races from the last couple of years then I should be writing positively about F1 again.
A bit of housekeeping. I hardly mentioned Charles Leclerc's wonderful performance in Baku but I will now. He looked on it all weekend and he says his driving style prior to the Azerbaijan GP wasn't working but it's good to see that he can adapt his technique and can now hopefully get the most out of the car. He drove Spain and Monaco in Formula 2 last year and he was excellent as he was all season long so I hope he can prove that Baku wasn't an anomaly and can score points again. We mustn't forget that his teammate Marcus Ericsson had a similarly brilliant performance in Bahrain so it's about repeating and holding good form to show your consistency.
Leclerc may shine on Saturday with rain forecast in the late afternoon. The last wet qualifying session was Italy last year in September so it's about time we had one and someone can shine. We also haven't had a chance to see what the cars are like in the wet with the halo but more importantly are Ferrari as weak as they were last year in the rain. I know it's not often we get a wet race or qualifying but you don't want to be slow in any conditions. We'll see, it probably won't rain at all now!
Off the track, the big story is that it was confirmed last week that regulations to help overtaking will be pushed through to happen in 2019. It's mainly the front wings that will see the most dramatic change. These are the confirmed changes:
- The front wing starts at 1225mm ahead of the front wheel center line instead of 1200mm, therefore longer
- The front wing is located between 75 and 300mm above the reference plane (currently between 75 and 275mm)
- The total width of the front wing increases by 100mm (currently 1800mm)
- The front wing is limited to 5 elements which cannot be placed on top of each other
- No slots or winglets in/at the endplates allowed
- Blown front axles are banned
- No winglets or turning vanes to be placed at the front brake ducts
- The rear wing can be 20mm higher and 100mm wider
- No bodywork between 175 and 450mm above the reference plane in the area around the rear wheels and behind
Sources say that Ferrari voted in favour of the 2019 regulation changes, along with Mercedes and other four teams, whereas Red Bull, Renault, McLaren and Toro Rosso voted against them. Are Ferrari and Mercedes working together in exchange for more stability on the power unit side for 2021?
But back to the on track action which I hope is as good as the season has been so far. I'd love to see Red Bull come back after having 2 results from the first 4 races with zero points. If any title challenge is to come their way they need to start winning on merit now.
Prior to last year the Spanish GP had 10 different winners from the last 10 races. Daniel Ricciardo win to make it 11 from 12? 🙂
For more of Nigel Chiu's opinion on F1 look back on his latest articles!
In the third chapter of the series were I look at some of the best racing drivers who are still racing today, I look at Japan which in itself is a country full of hard-working people who never give up and always try their best. The person I'm about to talk about represents what his country is all about and I love his style.
Kamui Kobayashi is arguably the most underrated driver to have raced in Formula One. He was a relentless, inferior machine. His penchant for passing made for great watching and it showed his inner racer capabilities. A natural talent and a style that was super aggressive yet respectful, something that I don't really think we have seen since he left F1.
It must be said that Takuma Sato is another great driver to have come from Japan and to conquer the international world. He is of course the only Indy 500 champion to come from Asia but he doesn't quite have the level of Kobayashi but he's a solid driver nonetheless.
Before we get into his F1 career and series that he did before that, we have to look at what is Kobayashi's greatest moment in his career and one of the best moments to ever happen at that event; it was of course that special lap in the second qualifying session of the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours.
It was the fastest ever lap around the Circuit de la Sarthe. We have to remember that nowadays, the Le Mans circuit is longer than it used to be, it's made to slow down the cars and the speeds should be a bit lower than they're used to be. Hans-Joachim Stuck's qualifying run in 1985 of a 3m 14.80 at an average speed of 251.882 km/h (156.512 mph). Remember, there were no chicanes down the Mulsanne Straight and most of the corners were a bit more open. Cars would hit speeds of up to 250MPH whereas when Kobayashi did his lap, he only just got over 200MPH.
Lets get onto the lap itself then. 3 minutes and 14.791 seconds was the time it took to complete 8.469 miles of the classic Le Mans track. It was spectacular and I saw no mistakes from a lap and I tend to see even the smallest error from a driver on a hot lap. Kobayashi made all of his time through the corners which just shows how brave he was because he was right on the edge and took every bit of speed that he could into the corners. The speed of the car through the Porsche Curves is just insane, the bravery, the confidence, the trust in the car was all there. He was over 2 seconds quicker than anyone else was that weekend which is mesmerising considering there aren't many corners on the circuit. His use of the lift and coast technique was beautiful so that he could maximise the hybrid boost to accelerate out of the corners like a rocket, he hit all of his apexes, used all of the road and put a stonking lap which I couldn't believe at the time.
The weather conditions were immaculate. He had a tailwind on the straights helped the car go a bit faster, and a headwind worked with the car’s aerodynamics on the Porsche Curves to keep it planted there. The perfect lap at the perfect time was made and we may never see a lap that quick around Le Mans in our life times.
For me, Kobayashi's lap should be up there with Senna's 1988 Monaco pole lap when he was 1.5 seconds quicker than Prost. It's as good as Schumacher's Monaco lap in 1996. Greg Murphy's "Lap of the Gods" at Bathurst in 2003, Scott Mclaughlin's stunner of a lap at Bathurst last year, any epic lap around any legendary circuit.
He's done some supremely quick stints at various WEC rounds and loves the high-speed tracks; which is why he can deliver at Silverstone, Spa and any round on the WEC calendar because they're all high-speed circuits. In my opinion, he's the best Toyota driver at the moment (Alonso is an uncertainty for now) and I also think Kobayashi is having to put up with the slowest driver in the team. I don't mean it in a bad way, but Jose Maria Lopez has yet to deliver and get on top of the Toyota and he's made some mistakes which have cost the team and his car. But Kobayashi can recover any time that is lost from Lopez and put Toyota back in the fight. His pure speed will hopefully give Toyota that Le Mans win which they have agonisingly been waiting for.
But before his WEC duties, at the age of just 19, Kobayashi won the Formula Renault 2.0 title and the Formula 2.0 Renault Italy title. He then won the GP2 Asia championship in 2009 with a round to spare but it never developed into anything special in the main GP2 series.
As soon as he got into F1 though, he stamped his authority on everyone and showed his unique character and driving style. He took points in his first ever race at Brazil in 2009 and didn't give Jenson Button an easy ride despite Button going for the championship and needing to overtake cars as quickly as possible. Button described Kobayashi as, "absolutely crazy, very aggressive." For a debut grand prix and to show no fear against the championship leader in a race that could give him the championship shows that he really doesn't care who he's up against and just wants to fight and race hard. He finished 6th in the next race but that would be the last time he drove a Toyota F1 car after they pulled out of F1 at the end of the season.
Sauber picked up the 31-year-old for the 2010 season and while it was a tough start to the year, Kobayashi improved and showed more maturity as the year progressed. Brilliant overtakes against his rivals in the midfield in Valencia and Suzuka were just spectacular to witness. I remember when he just overtook car after car at the hairpin in Suzuka and being astounded by how far back he was and passing cars up the inside and the outside.
Although he scored fewer points the following year he impressed yet again with a 5th place at Monaco and backing it up with the drive of his life in Canada in torrential rainy conditions running in 2nd place. As the track started to dry, he ended up dropping back down to 7th but it was still a fantastic drive in the rain. Murray Walker said that Kobayashi was "without a doubt Japan's best F1 driver yet" whilst Martin Brundle praised his amazing overtaking prowess:
"He gets to the normal braking point and then goes, 'Now, which one is the brake again? That's right, it's on the left,' and he just sails past people!"
2012 was by far Kobayashi's best season. A 5th place in Spain and a 4th place later in the season in Germany put Kobayashi in a good place but it was teammate Sergio Perez who outshone him. He put in a stonking lap at Spa to qualify a career high second place but was one of 5 cars to be caught up in that collision which was caused by Romain Grosjean. Who knows what would have happened, had he made it through the mayhem at the first corner.
But an F1 season has its ups and downs and Kobayashi had a mega weekend at his home Grand Prix. He qualified 4th and held off a charging Jenson Button to take his only F1 podium, but for him it couldn't come at a better venue. He's only the 3rd Japanese driver to stand on the podium in F1 joining Takuma Sato and Aguri Suzuki. It was fully deserved and the amazing Japanese fans were rewarded with a Japanese driver on the podium at a Japanese GP. Will it ever happen again?
Ironically, his last season at Sauber came when he had his best. But it didn’t help that his new team-mate Sergio Perez was outperforming him.
Despite this he managed to secure his first F1 podium in front of his home supporters with 3rd at the Japanese Grands Prix, holding off Jenson Button. He once again finished 12th in the standings, but this time doubling his haul with 60 points. That was the end of his Sauber F1 career.
2013 was a quiet year for Kobayashi but a return to F1 in 2014 with Caterham wasn't any better. We hardly saw him on the TV and his aggressive driving style wasn't able to shine. It was a sad end to his F1 career as the team and himself had a poor relationship.
Kobayashi would go back to Japan to race in the very competitive Super Formula series. He scored 3 podiums which rewarded him a drive with Toyota in 2016 were he still races today. Staggeringly, Kobayashi only has one race win which was at Fuji in 2016 but he is now able to show his supreme speed again. The faster the car, the quicker Kobayashi goes; I think he's found the perfect home in the World Endurance Championship.
The WEC will be his main focus again and with a "super-season" Kobayashi and Toyota will have two opportunities to win the biggest endurance race in the world, Le Mans. Surely it will happen this year with stunning drivers like Kobayashi and Fernando Alonso in each of the 2 cars.
I reiterate the importance of that pole position lap from Kobayashi last year. It defines him as a driver and whilst he hasn't been allowed to show his credentials in F1, he has instead shown that he's a world-class driver with incredible natural speed.
In similar fashion to the Chinese Grand Prix, the final part of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was equally as dramatic but in a very different way. Lewis Hamilton took his first win since Austin last October with a pretty average drive and a bit of luck. He now leads the championship standings. But how did his rivals fall be the wayside?
Qualifying saw Kimi Raikkonen make a mistake at the final "proper" corner when he was 2 tenths up on Sebastian Vettel (who did go on to take pole) which ultimately cost him pole position. Instead he started 6th, a costly error. It was agonising to see because Raikkonen has started on the front row in the previous 3 races this year and hasn't had a pole position for nearly 12 months. Surely he can rectify this. The Ferrari visibly rode the kerbs much better than the Mercedes and it had a better front end in the corners which helps when it comes to a quick change of direction. I believe that these are the key areas were the SF71H is stronger. Another important area is the wider operating window that the Ferrari car and its tyres can work in. It's strong in cold and warm temperatures as well as street circuits and the modern-day Tilke tracks. Does it have any major weaknesses?
The big incident for me was the near aeroplane crash accident between the Toro Rosso drivers, Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly at turn 15. Hartley had a puncture but instead of driving to the very left of the track (way away from the racing line) he drove in the middle of the circuit. I know that it's hard to turn when you have a puncture but he could have positioned his car much closer to the wall because his steering angle was still relatively straight. He didn't do a good enough job in my opinion, hence the low driver rating I gave him. Then, he wasn't checking his mirrors when Gasly was approaching him at 180MPH when you should always be checking your mirrors when you have a problem, especially if you're in a tight part of the circuit and not off the track. Gasly did a good job to react quickly enough as the unclear actions of Hatley nearly caused him to smash into the back of him and go flying into the air into a corner which doesn't have much run off at all. I can see why Gasly was so frustrated with his fellow teammate and I wouldn't have liked to have been in Hartley's shoes when Franz Tost saw him. Poor judgement and awareness from Hartley which nearly resulted in an incident which I don't even want to think about.
Enough with qualifying and onto the race. Remember, you get nothing on Saturday and have everything to earn on Sunday.
It was a relatively clean start...until the field got to turn 2. Sergey Sirotkin ran into the back of Sergio Perez which sent debris flying everywhere but then he got sandwiched by Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso which resulted in him getting a puncture and more debris flying whilst Alonso got a double puncture, both on the right hand side of the car. It could have been an almighty collision if one of them spun around towards the angry pack on the straight. Alonso somehow dragged the car home despite nearly hitting Esteban Ocon who was in the wall at turn 3 and the car sliding to the right all the time. Sheer will got him to the pitlane and how he got 7th with the amount of floor damage he had is another impressive performance.
Ocon was in the wall after contact with Kimi Raikkonen. To me, it was Ocon's fault as he didn't give Raikkonen enough room and just turned in on him which meant he was turned around into the wall. A costly error considering his teammate, Sergio Perez, got onto the podium. It was a big opportunity missed by Ocon and after a slow start to the year for Force India, a high double points scoring finish would have recovered a lot of the points dropped in the first 3 rounds.
On the restart, the Renault's battled the Red Bulls very hard and Max Verstappen's opportunistic move on Ricciardo into turn 2 was the first of many battles and moves which I will do a whole article on, including the collision, later in the week. The early Renault race pace showed that getting the tyres up to optimum temperature would take a long time because they were on ultrasofts whilst the Red Bulls were on supersofts. The ultrasofts switched on much more quickly than the supersofts and the latter took a ridiculous amount of laps to get up to speed. Carlos Sainz battling with his old teammate Verstappen was great to see and some of the racecraft was very good. Hulkenberg got in the mix as well until he made a mistake at turn 4, lost the rear-end of his car and went into the wall. Very disappointing to see after an excellent start to the year.
The extremely strong cross-head wind which was very gusty meant that the top speeds would fluctuate a lot and the slipstream was massive. DRS probably wasn't needed thanks to the 2.2KM blast at the end of the lap and the conditions.
A mistake from Hamilton as he was closing down on Vettel at lap 23 as he locked up into turn 1 meant that he had to pit earlier than he wanted to due to the major flatspot he had on the tyre. He went onto the softs. His pace was really picking up and I believe he was going to go onto the ultrasoft tyres for his final stint but the mistake he made meant that he couldn't. It took him ages to pick up his pace again as the cold track conditions and the lack of high-speed corners meant that he fell back into the clutches of the Red Bulls and he lost a lot of time to Vettel and Bottas.
Ferrari and Vettel covered Hamilton by pitting for softs on lap 31 whilst Bottas got quicker and quicker after a slow start. The tyres were very strange as they seemed to have no degradation and took so long to get up to speed. At one point I was thinking it would be best to pit on the last lap!
The safety car came out after the Red Bull collision and this time it was Bottas who got the luck. He pitted from the lead onto the ultrasoft tyre and Vettel and Hamilton pitted as well because they wanted a quick tyre for the restart that would switch on quickly, compared to the supersoft and soft tyres. It's very strange that the safety car and VSC has dictated the state of the races this year but it's just a coincidence. Bottas didn't benefit in China last time but this time he did, so it equalled out.
Romain Grosjean made a very silly error by spinning into the wall under the safety car when running in 6th position. He said this:
“I was warming my tyres and I bumped into a switch which I changed position and when I touched the brakes, the rear wheels locked and I span.”
After having some poor performances, doing something like he did on Sunday was the last thing the Frenchman needed and he cannot afford to carry on making mistakes and getting outperformed by Magnussen.
On the second and final restart, Vettel went for a move for the lead but messed it up and went wide at turn one and dropped to 4th position. Had he braked just 5M earlier he would have taken the lead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course but it just shows how hard is it to outbrake someone and overtake them. Not taking the lead turned out to be the right thing to do of course...
As Bottas came down the main straight at the end of the lap he ran over some debris and immediately received a puncture. I was screaming saying "oh no!" as I saw it unfold and I really do feel so bad for him because he drove a stunning race and his pace towards the end of the first stint was supreme. Had there been no safety car, he would have beaten Hamilton and challenged Vettel with a much faster tyre compound. I don't think he would have won but to take no points away from the weekend is just heartbreaking for him and he deserves a win for performing so well since that disastrous opening weekend in Melbourne. He's bounced back so well and has matched and even beaten Hamilton on track. It was a massive shame.
Had he not had the puncture he would have been leading the championship by 1 point over Hamilton, who would have been 1 point ahead of Vettel. An incredible situation, but it's not the case.
Where did that debris come from? I think it came from Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly in the restart as Magnussen was stupidly aggressive on Gasly and nearly caused another almighty collision at over 200MPH. Their tyres interlocked and it was very fortunate that neither of them spun around and smashed into the wall. I do like "K-Mag's" style but he has to be aware that he can cause a big collision one day if he pushes people around at high-speed. The onboard of Gasly's restart shows why the Frenchman said "Kevin is the most dangerous guy I have ever raced with". If you wanted to defend Magnussen, then he did have a lot damage which is why he wasn't as quick as usual in the race.
It was Hamilton who got a bit lucky and led Kimi Raikkonen home with a remarkable podium from Sergio Perez. It's the Mexican's 8th podium and he did what Lance Stroll did last year by just staying out of all of the mayhem, driving cleanly and getting the awards for it.
Hamilton went to console Bottas after the race which is why he was late to the podium and it does reiterate the healthy relationship in the Mercedes team. I'm beginning to respect the 4-time world champion more and more as he does care about others and not just himself. The costly error from Vettel, yet again, may prove crucial as he dropped another 13 points through his own error. It's going to be a tight championship and if Ferrari don't develop their car as well as Mercedes did last year then not maximising results now while Ferrari do have the edge is going to be costly.
There are some rumours that Hanoi is going to replace Baku in the near future. I hope this is not the case because the last 10 months in Azerbaijan has given F1 fans a lot to talk about and a lot of drama as well. The unique street circuit layout has the potential to be seen as a classic in the future so I dearly hope that Baku stays.
Well Done Baku!
Lewis Hamilton took his first victory of the year, albeit with a bit of luck, as Kimi Raikkonen recovered from an early collision to finish in 2nd. Sergio Perez took another podium after huge drama as the Red Bulls locked horns, Vettel made a mistake and Bottas got a late race puncture. All of that is to be analysed but first the driver ratings.
As always, the order you see below is the finishing order.
2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix - Baku
Lewis Hamilton: 7.5/10
Kimi Raikkonen: 7/10
Sergio Perez: 8.5/10
Sebastian Vettel: 8/10
Carlos Sainz: 8.5/10
Charles Leclerc: 9.5/10
Fernando Alonso: 7.5/10
Lance Stroll: 7/10
Stoffel Vandoorne: 6/10
Brendon Hartley: 3.5/10
Marcus Ericsson: 5.5/10
Pierre Gasly: 5.5/10
Kevin Magnussen: 6/10
Valtteri Bottas: 8/10
Romain Grosjean: 3/10
Max Verstappen: 2/10
Daniel Ricciardo: 3/10
Nico Hulkenberg: 4/10
Esteban Ocon: 5.5/10
Sergey Sirotkin: 5/10
Charles Leclerc's exceptional performance not just in the race but also in qualifying earned him a 9.5 and the highest ratings of the grid. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen's actions in the race awarded him another very low rating. I'll talk more about him in an article later in the week. The overall average for this race is lower than usual because there were a lot of mistakes out there but that's what I love about the Baku street circuit.
Four and a half seasons into the FIA Formula E Championship and it deserves a lot praise. It could so easily have died out after a season or so but no, it's getting bigger and it's getting better. There was a lot of negativity about Formula E and there still is. I really don't know why because it's a motorsport that provides excitement and entertainment which any other championship in the world would be proud of. To the opposers of Formula E, I have a few things to say because you're wrong if you say it's boring or to dismiss it completely, but you're right if you do see why Formula E is amazing.
The main reason I love motorsport is because of the racing. I adore the V8 Supercars Championship in Australia, Indycar and BTCC simply because the racing is stellar. Formula E is no different and it joins my list of the best racing in the world on four wheels. There are lead changes in every single race, nose to tail racing all the way through the field, aggressive moves when attacking and defending from the car in front or the car behind which is what I love to see; the entertainment levels are sky-high. I have seen very few dull races.
To those who say Formula E is boring, then I really don't know what you're watching. The last race in Rome wasn't an absolute classic; yet it was a rather typical Formula E race which is miles more exciting than most races we see in an F1 season. There were lead changes, high-intensity battles and an exciting fight for the lead and the podium. At one point, we had a 3 car train for the lead. It is pure entertainment and pure racing 99.9% of the time. The 0.1% is when fanboost is used to help an overtake.
I know that a lot of the cynics of Formula E use fanboost as a reason to why they don't want to watch the championship. Well, very, very rarely does fanboost give you an easy overtake. To me, it's no worse than DRS in F1 because you don't get an easy overtake, you usually just close up or get to set yourself up for an overtake at the next corner. Isn't it good that fans can take part in the motorsport just a tiny bit? If this is the worst thing that people can think of about Formula E, then surely that is a good thing because it's a good negative (apologies for the oxymoron!)
At first, I also wasn't too optimistic about Formula E. I wasn't really into it and if it wasn't for the incredible last lap, last corner crash between Nick Heidfeld and Nicolas Prost at the inaugural race in Beijing, maybe I wouldn't be watching Formula E now. It went quite viral in the motorsport world and I was staggered. But still, it wasn't enough to draw me into Formula E. I didn't see the second race in Malaysia because I couldn't be bothered to get up in the morning or catch up on it like I would for an Asian F1 race. Why? I guess I didn't respect or admire the championship enough even though the first ever race was so dramatic and probably couldn't get any better for an inaugural race of a brand new motorsport series
Luckily, the next race was in Uruguay at Punta del Este on ITV4 (in the UK) during the evening so I decided to watch it. It was mega. I remember that there were lots of lead changes and stunning battles as well as the odd clash with the wall or other cars. That really grabbed my attention and I just though to myself, "This Formula E thing is quite good." Twice I tuned in to watch, twice Formula E delivered in abundance and I haven't missed a race since.
Like I said, we're now into season 4 and 40 ePrix into the life of Formula E. Three different champions have been crowned at the finale of each season in incredible circumstances. Season One saw a 3 way battle from 3 very different drivers and 3 different teams. It went down the very last lap of the season and it was Nelson Piquet who emerged as champion.
Season Two saw Lucas di Grassi do everything to try and steal the championship from his rival Sebastien Buemi. I still remember Jack Nicholls screaming as Di Grassi hit the back of Buemi's car in an attempt to repeat what Senna did to Prost in 1990 at Suzuka. They battled it out for the points you get for the fastest lap and Buemi came out on top.
Di Grassi stole the championship from Buemi in Season Three as Buemi had a disastrous weekend and scored no points to give his title away. Having missed 2 races due to Toyota WEC commitments, Buemi should have romped away with the championship, but he lost it himself by losing his head, whilst Di Grassi proved why he's one of the best drivers in the field by being super consistent and sneaking ahead at the final event in Montreal.
Anyway, this article isn't here to talk about what happened. It's purpose is to say why Formula E deserves a lot of praise. But the fact that all three seasons so far have gone down to the wire compounds the competitiveness and the excitement of the championship. In the last 10 years, F1 has seen the championship go down to the final race every other year whereas Formula E looks like it will continue its streak of putting its fans on the edge of their seats right until the very end. It is so unpredictable and when it looks like a boring race, something happens and chaos erupts.
Most of you will know that a typical Formula E event will consist of 2 practice sessions, a qualifying session (plus the superpole) and the race all in one day. It means that the streets of a city like New York, Rome, Hong Kong, wherever you want, can be closed just for one day and the fans at the circuit can see lots of on track action in one day as well. No need to book an overnight hotel or set up a camp, it'll just be like having a family day out.
If people think that sound is a problem and that the noise of the cars is what turns them off, then I have to question if you're a true racing fan.
More and more manufacturers are joining Formula E because they recognise that it is working and the innovation of the next generation technology on the road cars is being used in today's Formula E cars. Season 5 will see Nissan and BMW coming into the series with Porsche and Mercedes following suit a year later. Lets not forget the privateers who are important to the integrity of the sport. At the moment, a privateer team can ask any of the manufacturers to sell them their powertrain to them and they have to oblige. This is great.
It does mean that raising the capacity of the grid to 30 would be a good idea. Privateers like the Techeetah team make the races exciting because they can get the setup right and challenge for wins and championships. They aren't just a team sitting at the back, they're one of the big teams, yet they're a privateer. This is good and the great thing about Formula E at the moment is that lots of teams can win the race.
Think about it. Only one car will be needed per driver in season five so currently (with 2 cars) 40 cars are being shipped around so shipping just 30 cars will be no problem. You may be thinking that congestion might be a problem, well I'm sure the drivers can get around this and it won't be too hard to change some of the circuits to make less of those 180 degree hairpins and more flowing curves. The only problem might be the width of the track on some circuits but I'm sure Formula E will do the right thing and work with the city organisers to make the circuits more race friendly. Changing the points system slightly, but not drastically could be another change that may need to be made if there are 30 or more entries. Formula E have made lots of good decisions so far and they will continue to if they don't rush or overcomplicated their solutions.
Enough with the future (that's for another day) and onto the present. Another reason why I love Formula E is the stellar driver line-up. F1 drivers who were kicked out far too early in their careers are now competing at their peak in a series which is on the up. They're also probably having a lot of fun driving the cars that they're driving because they can race hard and follow each other closely on the streets of a big city. Jean Eric Vergne , Lucas Di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi, Andre Lotterer and Sam Bird are just some of the drivers who are very good and highly skilled racers who like to race hard with passion and emotion. It's those characteristics that I want to see as a motorsport fan. The duel between Vergne and Di Grassi in Punta Del Este last month was probably one of the greatest battles I have ever seen in motorsport. I was yelling with excitement at the TV and just loved every single second of it. There was no overtake but there was literally millimetres between them at times and words can't describe the intensity and the excitement from that fight for the lead. It was just as epic as Michael Schumacher vs. Fernando Alonso in 2006 at Imola.
My final point is to the people who say "they're just saving their battery power, this isn't racing". Well, as I've mentioned above, the racing is sensational and we see lots of battles that are right on the limit. The drivers are very aggressive in defence and attack which adds to the drama and whilst they may be saving their battery life by lifting and coasting into corners, they're absolutely on the limit in the corner itself to maximise their lap time. The drivers have to take as much speed as they can into every corner by almost touching the wall and it can easily go wrong. This is an important skill that you need as a racing driver and you can't really teach it. If you go over the limit then you will find yourself in the wall, you get punished for any errors you make which is great compared to the grade one circuits that F1 or WEC go to. Formula E has shown that street circuits are great if you can overtake on them as the drivers are always on the limit and just centimetres away from the fans at the venue.
That's my story of my relationship with Formula E. I don't see many (if any) problems with it and Alejandro Agag deserves a lot of praise to get the series where it is today as it could easily have gone wrong. Well done Formula E!
In a follow-up to his previous Opinion article, Nigel Chiu looks at further talking points from China.
There is no doubt that the Chinese Grand Prix would have been pretty dull without that safety car in the middle of the race. The man who was the most unlucky from the safety car call was the leader at the time, Valtteri Bottas. Even though I'm not someone for "ifs, buts, maybe, could've, should've, would've" talk we have to look at the situation that is more likely to occur throughout the season.
Bottas made another good start and just like Bahrain, split the Ferrari's, getting ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. That is one tick. Then, he stayed within the undercut window to jump Vettel in the first pitstop phase. The Mercedes pitstop for Bottas was the fastest of the race at 2.15 seconds whilst Vettel's pitstop was just under the 3 second mark. Bottas pitting a lap earlier with purple sectors on his outlap bridged the 3 second deficit and turned it into a one second lead over Vettel. We saw none of it from the TV pictures unfortunately but it must have been an incredible outalp from Bottas. The undercut isn't that powerful at the Shanghai track yet a fantastic pitstop from the team with an equally skilled lap from the driver nearly gave Mercedes the win.
Ferrari tried to respond by not pitting Raikkonen so that he could slow Bottas down and allow Vettel to try something to get passed Bottas. It's very annoying that Ferrari are already using Raikkonen as a number 2 driver in the third race of the year. They ruined his race and a chance of taking a podium. Luckily for Raikkonen, the safety car saved his chances. The philosophy of Ferrari has always been to do this but to do it this early is just wrong. They don't care about the constructors' championship and have put all of their eggs in Vettel's basket and put Raikkonen's in a completely different room. For me, Raikkonen has been just as quick as Vettel. He was arguably faster in Australia, but lost out due to the VSC; he would have been flying in Bahrain had Ferrari pitstop gone correctly and those supersoft tyres went on the car (a podium was almost certain) and he has qualified 2nd in every single race this year losing out to Vettel by fractions of a second. This year he's been much better than the last couple of years which is good to see.
So much happened at the front but we must not forget the ever-changing midfield. McLaren seem to be struggling in qualifying but their race pace is very good. They're 4th in the constructors' championship and 6th with Fernando Alonso in the drivers' championship. If you asked them would that be satisfactory for the 3rd race, I think they would say yes. McLaren did say that they would be up there with Red Bull. That was an overambitious target but they're definitely improving and getting closer to the front. They have less downforce than Red Bull and seem to be struggling with tyres (I think they have a small operating window, similar to Mercedes). A lot of talk has been going on about a draggy car for McLaren and the evidence to show this is that they're down in the speed traps, but as are the other Renault powered engines, however the fact Alonso and Vandoorne tried to give each other a tow (slipstream) in qualifying shows that the straight line speed isn't there. Has this been the case for the last 4 years? If so, Honda's lack of power has been made to look worse than it is if McLaren have had 'draggy' cars. It does look promising.
Nico Hulkenberg continued to impress again and I'm so tempted to give him a 10/10 driver rating but I'm just saving it because I'm hoping he puts in a special drive to finally get his maiden F1 podium. He's started 7th in every race so far and his race pace was good enough to run with the big three teams after the safety car period. We must remember that Carlos Sainz is his teammate and he's being outshone completely by Hulkenberg. People say Sainz is just as good as Verstappen, and we all rate Verstappen highly despite his recent mistakes, so far The Hulk's ability to beat Sainz with relative ease is very impressive.
The battle between Renault and McLaren will be very close all year-long and they could push each other on (development wise) and get seriously close to the "Big 3".
It's good to see that Force India look much better even though they scored no points on Sunday. Their drivers, Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez look visibly more confident in the corners. A top 5 in the constructors' is highly unlikely but they must battle hard to try to recover from their poor start to the season.
Romain Grosjean looks like he's really struggling with the car and he says that the understeer really doesn't suit him and that's why he's losing so much time to Kevin Magnussen who's doing an excellent job. Grosjean needs to drive around the problem like the great drivers do or else he will be put under severe pressure to keep a seat in F1. I know its early days but I feel that Grosjean will have a disappointing season. Those 20 or so points that were lost at the Australian Grand Prix last month looks like it's going to really hurt the team. The American outfit would have been 4th ahead of McLaren and Renault if it weren't for those heart-breaking pitstops.
It looks like Toro Rosso's and Pierre Gasly's 4th place in Bahrain was an anomaly. I don't think the car will be as bad as it was in Shanghai but they certainly won't be the 4th best team on merit. For Gasly, he went from hero to zero as he hit his teammate after thinking that Hartley would let him through at the hairpin whilst Hartley was going to let Gasly through at the exit of the turn 14 said hairpin. The confusion caused a collision which caused the race changing safety car due to the debris left on track. Franz Tost was fuming (to say the least) after the race.
On the topic of safety cars, some people said that they should close the pitlane if there's a safety car. Sebastian Vettel wasn't happy with the timing of the it which is ironic after he won in Australia thanks to fortunate timing of a VSC (virtual safety car). I think that luck is part of motorsport and sport in general. Sometimes you need some luck but you still have to actually execute a solid driver to take advantage of some luck, like a safety car. Whenever there's a safety car or VSC, someone in the field will be compromised and this time it just happened to be the leaders which is why this story came up. If you look at the last time a safety car came out immediately in the middle of a race then I'm sure someone in the midfield would have had their race ruined as well. Nothing needs to be changed.
As for Charlie Whiting taking quite a long time to call the safety car. To me, that was just silly and he shouldn't have needed drivers on the radio to ask for a safety car. He needs to just use his common sense and make the decisions by himself. Referees in football don't (or at least they shouldn't) get influenced by the players so neither should Whiting. He needs to use his initiative and his own human instincts as to if he should call a safety car, VSC, use double waved yellows, whatever; decisions need to be made quicker. Imagine of one of the leaders ran wide and ran over the debris and got a puncture thanks to Whiting not calling the safety car earlier. The backlash he would have got would have been a nightmare for him. No rules need to be changed, just the speed of decisions.
Sauber and Williams both had quiet yet poor pace weekends. Nothing new there. I don't know what to say really because I don't see either of them getting points consistently and they will just be battling at the back. Unfortunately someone had to be at the back and this season it's them.
That's a run down of all the teams after the 3rd round of the year. Next up is Azerbaijan which should produce some more good overtaking and close battles. We go into every race not knowing who has the pace. Is it Red Bull, Mercedes or Ferrari? Small factors like wind, temperature and fine tuning the car will make the difference which is what I like to see. It should be like this and I love it when mother nature plays its part. We see things like cloud cover affect lap time and grid positions in other forms of motorsport and things like this will make a difference in F1 2018. Which driver can execute the perfect lap when the pressure is at its maximum, who can execute the perfect race, will the teams make the perfect strategy calls, who wants it most?
We will go into every race were these questions will have to be answered well enough by the teams and drivers to win the race or get a podium or point. It's going to be one of the most highly fought F1 seasons in recent history and I cannot wait to see how it pans out.
Next up "Barmy Baku".
The second half of Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix was motorsport at its finest. Drama, unpredictable, incredible overtakes and stories that have lit up the motorsport world. F1 2018 has delivered yet again and it looks like we could be in for a brilliant season.
Where do we start? Well, it has to be with the driver and winner of the day, Daniel Ricciardo. When his turbo decided to call it a day in FP3 on Saturday morning, I think we all thought "here we go again". This was just 6 days after an electrical issue in Bahrain. But at least it didn't happen in qualifying or the race. It did put the Red Bull mechanics under serious pressure to get a new power unit in the car which hadn't even been put together which. It didn't look good when Q1 started but the car somehow got out onto the track with just 3 minutes remaining in the session. Ricciardo sneaked through in 14th place to progress to the next part of qualifying.
It's a good thing the turbo decided to blow up when it did because if it happened somewhere in the middle sector then vital time would have been lost to fix the car and Ricciardo told the marshals to push the car towards the pit entry, so the Red Bull crew could pick it up quickly and fix the car as soon as possible. Every minute saved counted towards Ricciardo not starting at the back of the grid.
The Red Bull team deserves just as much credit as Ricciardo. They pitted both of their cars on the same lap, twice. It's not often we see it in a green flag situation but they made it work for them because if you're the other teams, and you see Verstappen make a pitstop you wouldn't expect Ricciardo to pit as well. The key to the victory was the split second decision to pit both of the Red Bulls including Ricciardo as soon as the safety car came out for debris from the Toro Rosso clash. They probably had 5 seconds to make a decision and whoever it was who made the call to pit then Ricciardo probably should buy them a beer!
Why didn't Hamilton pit though? He and the team had more time to decide whether to make a pitstop and I couldn't believe that they didn't see the opportunity of new tyres and having a chance of the win. Hamilton himself didn't notice until towards the end of the safety car period. It was going to be tight to do a 1 stopper without any safety car intervention anyway so to come in under the safety car 20 laps after the first stop was quite clear to me. It's decisions like this were you just ignore all of the data and technology and use your common sense and human instincts. Ferrari had the chance to pit Raikkonen as well but having pitted for mediums not too long ago, they chose not to, even though he would have lost no positions and would have been on faster tyres.
Mercedes are no longer dominant and they haven't been put under pressure when it has come to split second strategy calls since 2013 unlike Red Bull who are always looking to take any advantage they can.
Ricciardo was now in 6th place on new softs but without track position. For once, track position wasn't king which is good to see. Before I talk about Ricciardo's stunning overtakes we must look at how it shouldn't be done.
Firstly, Max Verstappen attempted to overtake Hamilton around the outside at turn 7 on the marbles. At first, it looked like it might have been on but with so many marbles off the racing line; it just wasn't going to happen but it was closer to being pulled off than a lot of people thought and had he done it, it would have been move of the year. Instead, he lost the rear end of the car and Ricciardo narrowly missed colliding with his Dutch teammate as he came back onto the road.
We have to remember that Verstappen had an excellent start as he went around the outside of Raikkonen at turn 6 on the first lap with a brilliant move. It's just a matter of being risky and causing fear to his rivals for Verstappen but while his psychological racecraft when racing other drivers has paid off, he has made far too many mistakes. Verstappen came back for more and did overtake Hamilton into turn 6 but he when he saw a gap at the hairpin when Sebastien Vettel missed the apex, he went for it but locked the rear brakes and hit Vettel. An utter disaster for both of them.
The 10 second time penalty for Verstappen was probably not harsh enough but Gasly got exactly the same penalty for hitting his teammate at the hairpin so the stewards had to be consistent and award Verstappen the same penalty. I could talk about Max Verstappen in a whole new article but from what we saw this race he could have won the race and been a hero but he was impatient, reckless and overambitious. He needs to look at who he's racing and not go for a banzai move every single time; he will be a champion but not if he keeps on doing what he's done this year.
Ricciardo easily swept by Raikkonen and as I said before, he avoided his teammate who came across the track directly in front of him. Then, from quite far back he dived down the inside of Hamilton without locking up with a typical late braking manoeuvre that we now associate with the Australian. He breezed passed Vettel and quickly caught up to the back of Bottas and made a move on him into turn 6. Bottas wasn't aggressive enough in Bahrain but I think he was about as aggressive he could be in his defence against Ricciardo. It wasn't enough and Ricciardo squeezed past the Finnish driver.
A great show from a great driver who did some great overtakes. It was just great! The reason I only gave him an 8.5 in my driver ratings for the race was because younger, softer tyres with what I believe was the quickest race car on Sunday isn't anything special. Other drivers would have done exactly the same. Verstappen proved that is wasn't really easy and that you still have to execute but with the correct strategy, Ricciardo should have won the race (which he did of course). The team deserves a 10/10 for the excellent strategy call and to get a new power unit into the car but Ricciardo has put in better performances than he did on Sunday, in my opinion.
The outpouring of emotion for Ricciardo put a smile on my face and he just thrived every single moment after the race. His "shoey" probably tasted just as sweet as his victory. Red Bull's pace was not just excellent on the last 20 laps of the race but they somehow managed to get 18 laps out of the ultrasoft tyres in the first stint with a pretty good pace. Ricciardo himself was within 2 seconds of Hamilton ahead of him for much of that stint when Hamilton and the other Mercedes and Ferrari were on the soft tyre which was by far and away the best race tyre. Helmut Marko has said that, "we can drive faster than the other teams, and with older tyres our traction advantage gets even bigger." For Red Bull to be this good early season is a good sign to me; not because I'm a Red Bull fan but they should now challenge Mercedes and Ferrari consistently from now on, at least in race trim. We genuinely got a 6 car fight on Sunday and we should get more of the same.
But what went wrong with Lewis Hamilton in China. He made errors in the free practice sessions, got outqualified by his teammate for the second week in succession and didn't show the kind of pace that Bottas did either. Every sportsman and sportswoman goes through bad phases and I believe that this is one of those phases for Hamilton. He still managed to avoid trouble and pick up a decent amount of points which was key. If you make your bad days as good as possible then you will be in a good state come October/November. This sums up the weekend for Hamilton:
Saturday and Sunday were a disaster on my side
The main problem with Mercedes is the tyres. Not only do they look to have a much smaller tyre operating window than Ferrari and Red Bull but the time they gain as each compound gets softer is probably the lowest in the whole field. This is a problem and it's why the softer side of the tyre range hurts Mercedes. They gain less and less time as the compounds get softer. The 0.4 of a second gap to Ferrari last Saturday was very telling because the temperatures, the circuit and the tyres in theory should have meant an easy Mercedes front row lockout. It seems like their engine advantage has been wiped out (to Ferrari at least) and they can be matched in the corners as well. All dominance comes to an end and it looks like it's the beginning of that for the Brackley-based team.
Before this article does get too long I do want to talk about the state of F1 2018.
1. Sebastien Vettel 54
2. Lewis Hamilton 45
3. Valtteri Bottas 40
4. Daniel Ricciardo 37
5. Kimi Raikkonen 30
The standings you see above is how the drivers' championship looks at the moment. I'm incredibly happy to see this after thinking that we might get another year of Mercedes dominance a couple of months ago when I previewed the 2018 F1 season. We have five drivers from 3 different teams all within one win of each other at the top of the table and this is encouraging. Verstappen did help this when he turned Vettel around otherwise the German would have had a much bigger lead. That said, Vettel himself had some luck in Australia so I think it's evened out in terms of luck. Raikkonen and Ricciardo both scored zero points in Bahrain which has hurt them but they're still in the hunt. Ferrari have made it quite clear that Vettel is their priority with the ridiculous strategy they gave to Raikkonen on Sunday. This could help Vettel a lot and will play a pivotal role in how this championship goes.
The major difference this year is that Red Bull will be there to influence races and take make the points losses even greater. To put simply, if Hamilton had a bad day last year, he would probably finish 3rd or 4th; but now he will probably finish 6th. The pendulum will swing even more which will hopefully make things more dramatic and exciting for the neutral viewers, including myself.
Since it was another mega race, there's a lot more to discuss so stay tuned for that!