Auto Manifesto

October 12, 2008

F1: Japanese Grand Prix

Qualifying

This was a snoozefest. Not because it wasn’t interesting to watch but watching it live in the E.S.T. time zone was around 1:00 AM so I was dozing off intermittently after a long day.

The first few thing of note was that the green grooves on the tires are a gimmick. Sure it’s part of a larger Bridgestone corporate message about sustainability, but all so transparent. Nothing has changed from the previous races this year as far as F1’s impact on the environment.

The change makes it hard to tell which compound each car is running since ALL the tires have green grooves and the softer tire has a white groove as well, where as the previous convention was that only the softer tire had white grooves while the other tires did not have any color grooves. Plus next year they’ll go back to slick tires.

On a more serious note about tires, since there is no “tire war” because Bridgestone is the only supplier, why do they have to bring custom compounds to each race? It makes the racing less predictable because each team’s performance can be compromised based on the chance that Bridgestone choose specifications that don’t suit their cars, which does nothing to reduce operating expenses.

They should make two compounds of a fixed specification for the entire season and bring that to every event. That way the teams will have a clear and equal starting point from which to design their cars, instead of having to do more and more simulation and testing just to pick which tires to use for each race weekend. Sure, the tires would likely not offer quite as much peak performance but the racing would be closer and that should be the top priority.

Other rules in F1 that should be dropped include the requirement that wing settings from qualifying be subject to “parc ferme” restrictions. It is foolish to compromise race day performance by having to choose the car’s wing settings the day before. Whenever weather conditions change, suddenly the car’s performance will be compromised purely from chance. As long as the teams don’t replace the wings with different components, there should be no problem with wing settings being changed on the grid prior to the race.

Again, qualifying was uneventful. Lewis Hamilton took pole, Kimi Raikkonen was second, followed by Heikki Kovalainen, Fernando Alonso, and Felipe Massa. Massa didn’t deliver when it mattered in this title fight.

Race

At the beginning of the show, Speed TV talks with McLaren about their wheel nuts which are not hexagonal. They adopted a design from Indy car which has many more angles and allows the gun to always fit the nut without any axial alignment by the operator. That probably saves a tenth or two during each pitstop (not to mention reducing risk of error).

Race day temperature was cool at 16 C, we’ll see how that affects tire performance from various teams. The start of the race was chaotic. Raikkonen and Kovalainen made great starts and got by Hamilton, but Hamilton elbowed his way past his teammate and had the inside line to Raikkonen at the first turn.

Hamilton played Kamikaze and overcooked his entry and that forced Raikkonen wide. Both McLaren and Ferrari drivers then went off the track and Alonso was able to take the lead followed by Robert Kubica.

Kubica is the most complete driver on the grid this year. His interview responses indicate he thinks quite methodically and was flexible to track conditions. When Peter Windsor asked him before the race how they’re dealing adapting to the track and tire combination, he indicated how he looked after the tires on different laps (i.e. different driving lines), opened up the differential, and change his steering angles. In other words, he changes the settings and way he drives on different laps to get the best out of the car.

All the drivers do this to varying degrees, but the way that he responds to these questions so naturally suggests that he has tremendous mental capacity to do so under peak pressure and is also a great test driver. More on this later.

David Coulthard and Kazuki Nakajima go off the track and break their cars; Coulthard’s car is done while Nakajima continues back to the pits for a new nosecone. It appeared Coulthard’s right rear suspension was wobbling (broken) all over prior to his impact with the tire wall. The Red Bull car does seem quite flimsy, breaking not for the first time this year, though it’s uncertain what caused the break.

Then Massa and Hamilton make contact and Hamilton spins and has to wait til everyone goes by. It looked to me that Massa was at fault as Hamilton was ahead and had the line.

Adrian Sutil is out on the main straight with a flat tire and parks it but not before leaving debris all over the track. Kovalainen’s engine blows. Then Massa is given a drive through penalty for hitting Hamilton, and Hamilton is given one for his move on Raikkonen at the start. One has to wonder if a drive through penalty at Fuji is much harsher than other circuits because the front straight is so long.

Sebastian Bourdais then leads a grand prix for the first time in his career. Then he pits and comes out while Massa is going by and they make light contact. Massa spins and continues. Raikkonen chases down Kubica and the two have an intense scrap for several laps before Raikkonen’s tires start going away.

Massa is under investigation for the Bourdais incident. It will be investigated after the race. F1 just shot itself in the foot again. When there is ample time to make a decision during the race, the stewards should settle the matter immediately in order to avoid possible penalties being imposed later and changing the results after the fact, as well as raising questions of manipulation of the championship outcome.

Another thing is the debris left from Sutil’s incident should’ve been cleared off. It was left there for the duration of the race and a bunch of drivers ran over bits and pieces while attempting to overtake.

Amazingly Alonso won his second race in a row. Kubica was second and Raikkonen brought it home third. Massa managed to salvage a point while Hamilton scored none in a very eventful race. Neither drove like championship contenders in this race.

Hamilton is a very good driver but he is also super lucky considering the mistakes he has made. He has had virtually no mechanical failures in his entire time in F1.

Having had a very lackluster season and now out of contention for the title, Raikkonen’s body language on the podium says he’s done. The Iceman’s fire appears to be out.

Meanwhile Alonso appears to be on fire even though he too is out of the title chase. When he finally gets a seat at Ferrari there will be epic battles with Hamilton and McLaren.

Ultimately, if there’s one driver who has performed like a champion this year it’s Kubica. He’s fast, intelligent, level-headed, and has made the fewest mistakes – if not diplomatic (easy on publicly criticizing the team Robert).

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