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Yeah, About That…

Okay, so approximately once each decade or so, the planets align themselves unfavorably and I end up being mistaken about something. And, every once in a great while, I’m actually kind of happy about that.

So it might just be crushed-under-the-heel-of-his-bright-blue-Puma domination, after all.

Actually, no, maybe I shouldn’t even commit those words to the intertubes. It might not be good luck. As I’ve mentioned, I control the fate of Chicago sports teams simply by virtue of which shirt I choose to wear during a game, and I’ve been known to inadvertently ruin Red Bull’s races by eating turkey sandwiches. Think it’s easy wielding that sort of power? Think again.  But as long as I stay away from turkey sandwiches next weekend, it probably won’t matter what I say about Vettel’s domination. It will still be there. And he will, sometime in the next five races,  succeed in scoring the one point necessary to win his second straight championship. Call it a hunch.

As it turns out, those rumors of Red Bull’s domination being “over” were greatly exaggerated (by the BBC, of all news outlets — imagine!). In fact, that domination seems to have steamed along rather impressively, even at two circuits where everyone expected the RB7 to have trouble. What can we make of that? How could this have happened? Why are the F1 gods seemingly deaf to the anguished cries of those who love close competition and who yearn for different, non-Vettel dudes to win races?

I think the reason is fairly clear. There is one driver who has pleased the F1 gods above all others by being exemplary in every respect. I don’t think I need to say his name. You know — that guy. If only he would begin a lucrative pop music career, right? Or start crashing into more people. Or not stay late with his engineers on a regular basis, working hard to get every last ounce of speed from his car, correct every minor mistake or difficulty, anticipate every possible problem. If only he’d give those superhuman, (sometimes literally) blistering pole laps a rest. If only he’d stop driving each lap of each race with the entire race and every minute aspect of it in mind. If only he’d stop being so damn curious about everything all the time, being the only driver to accept Pirelli’s invitation to visit their HQ and learn about the new tires over the winter break, doing little things like walking around  pouring water on the curbs the Thursday night before a race to test grip levels.

But these are things he will not do, and it’s this that makes the F1 gods smile benevolently and bestow great favor and rich rewards.

Perhaps if he would be so good as to keep his eyes firmly on his astronomical points total and stop driving every race as though it were the first of the season, with everything left for everyone to play for, then someone else might have a fighting chance. Back in July, he had this to say about whether he knew how many points in the lead he was over the next guy:

“No, I don’t know so please don’t tell me!

“I don’t care. The thing is as soon as they start mentioning points I skip that bit!

“What does it help? What is the gain, what do I learn from it? Obviously I know we are in the lead – you keep telling me – but it doesn’t really matter if it is one point or 100.

“What do I learn from it?” On the basis of everything I’ve read, this is one of the qualities that sets Vettel apart and will likely continue to set him apart: he’s a world champion, about to be one twice over, but he’s never going to stop trying to learn how to be better. He’s never going to just sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and believe he has it all sufficiently figured out.

People are starting to talk about Vettel differently now. I’m not talking about people “in the paddock,” obviously (how would I know?); I’m talking about the fans in online forums — the only F1 people I have contact with. Over the past two race weekends, I’ve noticed a thirty percent decrease in outright anti-Vettel hostility alongside a thirty-five percent increase in pro-Vettel admiration (some of which is grudging in nature, but what can you do?). Let’s see how those numbers I just made up pan out by the end of the season. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember there are still five races left, and so many things can happen.

Sebastian Vettel is a guy who just seems to be doing everything right at the moment. Of course, it’s impossible for a mere human to go on doing absolutely everything right forever. To expect as much would be a bit unfair. But if someone had a gun to my head and told me I had to bet on one guy doing it longer than everyone else, I know who I’d put my money on.


There’s Domination, and Then There’s Domination

And so we’ve reached another terrible, seemingly endless F1 summer break — that time of year when drivers jet off to the south of France for some quality uninterrupted cavorting with supermodels, journalists make a big show of how great it is to have a few weeks’ reprieve from the terrible drudgery of their work, and fans weep and wail about how empty their lives have become. How empty our lives have become. I’m certainly no exception; I find these breaks in the action to be weirdly excruciating, not quite like anything sports-related I’ve ever experienced. By the time first practice in Spa rolls around, the sound of an F1 engine will be like a healing salve applied to my soul. My very soul, I tell you!

Hyperbole aside, the summer break does suck. One needs something to fill the void, and sitting here next to my TV I have four, count ’em, FOUR season review DVDs from Netflix: 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2005. Schumacher domination ahoy! I can only assume that watching the first three of those DVDs will bore me beyond belief and make me want to stop following F1 forever — at least, that’s the impression I’ve gotten, seeing people wail and gnash their teeth in remembrance of the Era of the Schumacher. It was a dark time, that, or so I hear. So dark that the sight of a German winning the first few races of the current season triggered something akin to a collective F1 fan PTSD episode that still hasn’t quite subsided.

No matter, though. From what I’ve been reading, Red Bull’s and Vettel’s domination is “over”! The RB7 is no longer the fastest car — at least not during races, when it really counts. This is even the case at circuits like the Hungaroring, full of the sorts of corners the RB7 normally relishes. Vettel got pole position there, but only just. I obviously can’t take issue with any of these statements except perhaps the first, although I suppose it comes down to how you’re using the word “domination.” People (other than me) will sleep more peacefully at night if Vettel isn’t winning ALL the races — and, if things stay as they are with the RB7 relative to the other cars, it’s pretty likely he won’t.

But Vettel and Webber aren’t going to sit still for an RB7 that isn’t what it could be, and I can’t imagine anyone else on the team is, either. Certainly not Adrian Newey, by all accounts one of the most competitive carbon-based life forms ever to walk the pit lane. Obviously no one is planning to circumvent the forced two-week break — that would be wrong — but, although you might be able to stop factories from churning out bits, you can’t stop someone’s brain from churning out brilliant ideas. Especially not his.

Will Red Bull find a way to resume their total, crushing domination in the face of McLaren’s and Ferrari’s considerable improvements? I’m going to go with a safe “maybe…?” because I’m not feeling cocky enough to comfortably offer up my usual trash talk at the moment. During the past two race weekends, I found myself filled with an unfamiliar sense of dread; this was the case even after Vettel won pole position in Hungary. Something just didn’t seem quite right with the car, and it was like you could read it on the faces of everyone on the team. Or maybe that’s me projecting. Vettel seemed more positive about what the car could have done during that race than I felt afterward, and I suppose he might know better than me. Maybe.

Still, we’re coming up on two circuits that aren’t exactly tailor-made for Red Bull’s car. We could be looking at another disastrous scenario in which Vettel is able to increase his championship lead by only a few points in each race! And see, that’s where one’s particular view of “dominance” becomes relevant. Vettel might be looking at a remainder of the season in which he doesn’t win ALL the races. But which one driver is going to step up and win them instead? That’s where the rest of the field runs into a problem. There simply isn’t one other driver presenting a challenge, racking up the points. It ought to be Alonso, right? Or Webber? And yet . . . no. Instead, four guys are battling it out for the points Vettel doesn’t win, spreading them fairly equitably amongst themselves. If those four guys were able to merge into one terrifying mutant superdriver, then yes, maybe Vettel’s domination of the season would be in some serious danger. As it is, I think it will continue. Perhaps not as spectacularly as at the beginning of the season, but surely and steadily.

The largest margin by which anyone led the championship last year was 14 points. Vettel’s current lead is 85 points. And he’ll continue to learn from every mistake, to adjust his performance accordingly, to do everything in his power to finish every single race, to wring everything possible out of that car no matter what the conditions, building on his lead even if he isn’t able to make it to the very top of the podium every time. That is my firm belief.

The season might not end with the same euphoric, crushed-under-the-heel-of-his-bright-blue-Puma kind of domination we saw at its beginning — but the trophy he wins at the end of it will be just as shiny, and his signature will be on it twice.

British Grand Prix at the City Winery

I watched the race at the City Winery in SoHo last weekend, and I really can’t say enough about what an excellent event that was. About two hundred of us hardcore F1 fans (and if you’re reading this somewhere other than the US, believe me when I tell you that was a number that impressed everyone involved) were welcomed into this restaurant — normally not open at 7:00 am, which is when we started turning up — and served coffee, drinks, and breakfast as we watched the race LIVE on large screens and were (crucially!) supplied with free WiFi. Wait, though — it gets better. What we were watching was the actual taping of the broadcast that would air on FOX later in the day for the rest of the country. Therefore, amazingly, we were actually addressed directly by Bob Varsha, Steve Matchett, David Hobbs, and Will Buxton, and we got to hear some of their unedited banter as they commented on the live race. The unadulterated freaking coolness of that cannot be overstated!

After the race, when everyone was still reeling from the team orders, er, incident that went down, we were shown a sizable clip from the Senna  documentary. A lot of people in the audience had already been lucky enough to see the movie — including me, twice (read my review here) — but it was a privilege to be treated to a piece of it again, enough to further whet our appetites for the movie’s official release here in the US in August (when we will all be taking our non-F1-fan friends to go see it, right? right?!).

So, although they are unlikely to read this, I really want to thank everyone involved in that entire event: Bob Varsha, Steve Matchett, David Hobbs, Will Buxton, and SpeedTV in general; the staff at the City Winery, at least some of whom had also worked the night before and were cheerful and helpful yet almost certainly exhausted; and the NYC meetup organizers, as well as those involved in distributing Senna here in the US, who I gathered had much to do with the whole event.

I was certainly left with mixed feelings about watching races with a bunch of other people in a bar, especially with the widespread (and eternally puzzling) loathing of Sebastian Vettel that’s so much in vogue these days. There sure were a hell of a lot of McLaren and Ferrari fans at this thing, not surprisingly, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a ferocious roar of joy as when the jack broke during that fateful pit stop.For maybe the hundredth time, I was left thinking, “Really? Is that how you want it to go down?” For many, apparently so. I actually heard one guy say, “I’ll take it any way I can get it!” and he’s clearly not alone there. Rather than seeing their guy triumph, they’re content to see their enemy meet random misfortune. Well, okay, then. Congratulations on that broken jack!

Not an easy thing to put up with, I have to say. If I’d been watching in my apartment, it might have been a bit better for my mental health. ;-)

I will freely admit, though, that Fernando Alonso thoroughly deserved that win. It’s not as though it was just that botched Red Bull pit stop that decided the race. The guy’s incredible; I’ve never for a moment tried to argue otherwise, and this race was a good illustration of why. Also, I think Seb is right to be concerned about Red Bull stepping up their game in light of this performance. Ferrari came with updates, and they sure did seem to be working well.

Now, if anyone reading this has read my past rants on team orders, you might be wondering when I’m going to come down on Red Bull like some sort of pissy fist of self-righteous rage. Well, the answer to that question is “now.” I hate team orders. I hate the thought of any situation existing in which racing drivers aren’t racing during a race. I think it sucks for pretty much everyone involved: for us, the fans; for the driver being ordered to, say, “maintain the gap”; for the driver supposedly benefiting  from said gap being maintained, whose skills at maintaining the gap himself are brought into question; to a lesser extent for the team, which ends up looking like a bunch of jerks to a hell of a lot of people; and for the sport, the planet, and the universe (because I say so).

I’ve heard and read many arguments on both sides with regard to what went down last Sunday, and I’m not so dumb that I can’t see the logic of each. Yes, yes, I get it. Yet if I were either driver, I, personally, would be very pissed. If I were Mark, I’d be thinking, “What the hell? I’m racing to effing win!” If I were Seb, I’d be thinking “What the hell? I don’t effing need you telling anyone to back off me!” And if you haven’t seen people slagging off on Seb over this mess as though it were somehow his fault and/or a reflection on his skills, I’d submit that you don’t read too many English F1 forums.

What I’ve learned from all this is that Red Bull Racing is not any different, not in any respect, from any other F1 team. Yes, there were those of us naively thinking otherwise, especially after statements like those Dietrich Mateschitz made late last season, about how he’d rather they lose the championship than use team orders. Well, maybe Mateschitz felt that way — and still feels that way — but Christian Horner clearly doesn’t. In spite of all the hue and cry about hypocrisy, I always got the distinct feeling that Horner’s objections were purely a matter of expediency — first because team orders were illegal, and then because his boss really didn’t care for them or the image they convey.

Still, I had believed that Horner and the rest of the team would be compelled to work within those philosophical confines, and that clearly is not the case. Mateschitz has expressed his approval of Webber’s actions, and I don’t know about what sort of talk went on between Mateschitz and Horner behind closed doors, but BOY would I like to. Maybe Mateschitz’s entire position is also one of pure expediency — projecting the image he wants for his brand — but even so, Horner sure did put a dent in it last weekend.

I’m left wondering what the Red Bull Racing fan ought to take away from this incident in terms of “team philosophy,” to the extent that such a thing can exist with any sort of integrity in F1. “We let our drivers race each other — under certain conditions!” Again: not different from any other team.

A final, slightly bothersome thread of this issue has been tied in a neat knot for me with Mark Webber’s clarification of his own position on team orders. He had been a fairly vocal supporter of Ferrari’s use of team orders in Hockenheim last season, and that had left me waiting for clarification — which has arrived with his most recent BBC column:

What made it difficult for me to accept was that it happened so close to the end of the race.

Over the years in F1, we have seen a number of situations when a team has asked one driver to let another by to ensure both their strategies work, for example.

Earlier in the race, there is still plenty to go on, and you are helping a guy who at that point of the race is quicker because of strategy or whatever.

But when you are coming to the line and you’ve only got five laps to go, there is no more strategy to be played out. It’s just a straight fight.

In other words, it comes down to a matter of timing. So late in the race, all that’s left — all that should be left — is a “straight fight.”

I think a lot of us want to see just that no matter what part of the race it is.

A Modest Proposal

It’s taken me about a week to recover from the crushing disappointment of the last lap of the Canadian Grand Prix. No joke! Of course I realize my reaction was the precise opposite of that of most people, who would have been sent spiraling downward into deep despair had Sebastian Vettel won yet another race after all those hours of viewing commitment. The affable British all-around top bloke jolly well triumphed over the loathed German world champion, saving the day by putting a stop to him steamrolling the 2011 season like some unstoppable Tiger tank.

For a while now, F1 forums have been rife with moans that the current season is boring because Vettel keeps winning. I’m getting the impression that, to many people, a given race and what happens during the course of it makes very little difference. It’s all about the result, and when the same person is winning a large majority of the time, the season is simply ruined. “The Show,” as people increasingly annoyingly put it, is ruined.

So last weekend’s grand prix is a step in the right direction, if fans are to be persuaded not to abandon F1 altogether. Really, though, there’s more that could and perhaps ought to be done. Surprise race results like that last one can’t always be ensured under the current rules — really, Vettel could have won that race and was winning for most of its duration — so perhaps the rules need to be reexamined.

As it stands now, in theory, a single driver could win every single race in a given season. This simply isn’t right. Who wants to see that? How many fans would the sport lose if that happened? Even now, only two races so far this season haven’t been won by Vettel, and in those two races he came second and was beaten by a fairly small margin. What if things had gone differently? And what if they were to continue this way? Something really ought to be done.

That’s why I propose that, over the course of a twenty-round season, no one driver be permitted to win more than two races.

Under my proposed scheme, the results of the first three races of the current season would have been just the same as they were under the current scheme. However, when round 4, the Turkish Grand Prix, was shaping up to be won by Vettel, who had already won his allotted two races of the season, something would have been done to prevent that outcome. This could be any number of things, and the logistics of  my plan have yet to be ironed out, but I think it probably would be best to have it be something that would add to the “excitement.” Perhaps Race Control could have activated something on Vettel’s car that would have caused him to lose control in a corner, much as he did in Canada — maybe a couple times, whatever it took to close the gap sufficiently — thereby (in the case of Turkey) providing fans everywhere the opportunity to howl with gleeful triumph as Mark Webber closed the gap and overtook his teammate.

I’ve calculated what the points standings for the current top five guys would be under my scheme, and it looks like this:

  1. Vettel – 140
  2. Button – 101
  3. Webber – 101
  4. Hamilton – 92
  5. Alonso – 76

Sure, Vettel would still be in the lead — but by only 39 points, rather than 60. Webber and Button would now be tied for second, and Hamilton would be trailing them by a mere 9 points. In addition, race winners so far this season would include Vettel, Button, Webber, Hamilton, and Alonso. It’s all about evening things up, people! Evening things up, giving more guys a chance to win races, and keeping the audience entertained: that’s what my scheme is all about.

There’s room for tweaking as well, of course. Sure, Vettel might no longer be winning every race and boring everyone to death that way — but he still might be ruining everyone’s fun during qualifying! Well, then why not institute a similar limit on number of pole positions allowed per driver per season? The possibilities are endless, really, as long as the FIA is willing to think “outside the box” with regard to keeping audiences happy, as I think they’ve already shown their willingness to do. People were complaining about there being no overtaking? Now we have DRS, and how are you liking the overtaking now? Uh huh, that’s what I’m saying.

It’s clear that attacking Red Bull’s advantage by constantly trying to prove bits of their car are illegal is not an effective leveling-the-playing-field strategy, especially when there’s a certified genius like Adrian Newey being so damned clever about everything. Even ruling the off-throttle exhaust-blown diffuser illegal this far into the season isn’t going to help matters much, considering how other teams have been working hard at perfecting that system as well. No, it’s clear that the time has come for an entirely new approach to making F1 exciting. I profess, as a Sebastian Vettel fan, that I obviously have not the least personal interest in seeing any of this come to pass. I’m concerned only about the popularity of F1 and the TV ratings for the races; when these things prosper, everyone wins. (Except Sebastian Vettel — not more than twice a season, anyway!)

You Would Never Guess How Many Women Named “Monaco Glamour” There Are Out There!

I must confess to already having developed something of a love-hate relationship with the Monaco Grand Prix. Sitting comfortably on the “love” side of the scale, there’s the circuit itself. Is there anything more thrilling that Monaco on-board footage? Is there anything better than this?

No, I mean actually anything better. How can anyone watch that and then not say, “Holy crap! I clearly need to spend every waking moment contemplating this amazing sport, where people actually drive like that on streets that are more like Midtown Manhattan at rush hour than a race track!” The circuit, the challenge it has presented drivers historically and still presents — how could that fail to be compelling?

Ah, but the other side of the scale. Well, that includes…almost everything else. The flaunting of obscene wealth, the prominence given to visits from vapid celebrities who care precisely jack about Formula 1, the…wait, did I mention the obscene, revolting, ostentatious displays of wealth? Not to mention the obscene, revolting, ostentatious displays of Flavio Briatore, who always seems to be around during Monaco GP weekend. There’s absolutely nothing attractive to me about any of that. I’m told I really ought to visit Monaco, because it’s so amazing. Other than the actual racing that takes place there, it’s hard for me to think of a single reason why I’d want to. I don’t even think the weather sounds inviting.

Of course, of course, I realize this makes me both a Philistine and a freak in the eyes of most. And possibly a socialist to boot. I’m at least partly guilty on all charges, I imagine.

All that said, I enjoyed nearly every minute of the race weekend that didn’t involve something terrifying or a photo of a woman with the caption “Monaco glamour,” as though that were her name or her reason for being. On the subject of things that were terrifying, my happiness at Sergio Perez’s relative well-being after an 80-G meeting between his car and the wall at the Nouveau Chicane cannot be overstated. He seems to be feeling more motivated than ever and can’t wait to get back in the car, and my fingers are crossed that he will pass his FIA physical with flying colors and be back in full effect in Montreal.

As for the race itself, those who know me might find this difficult to swallow, but I speak the truth when I say that even I was disappointed at the red flag and subsequent changing of the tires. Yes, I am a Vettel fan — but that’s the thing. I wanted to see what he could do on those geriatric tires he’d been using for more than half the race. I was literally at the edge of my very seat waiting to see this. And even if, in the end, Fernando Alonso were able to overtake him, I knew with every fiber of my being that it would not be easy for him and that people would be saying, “Wow, that was pretty amazing. I can’t believe Vettel defended that position for that long on those tires.”

But no — in the end, everything turned out much differently. I still think Seb accomplished something special, but it wasn’t what it could have been.

Oddly enough, when I first started writing this post, it was almost entirely about what happened with Lewis Hamilton both during and after the race. Now that this much time has passed, it feels like everything worth saying — and a hell of a lot of other crap besides — has already been said. Do I have anything useful to add? Almost certainly not.

Here’s what I keep thinking, though: Lord knows I have a terrible temper. If someone came and stuck a microphone in my face when I was really pissed off and started asking me questions, it curls my hair to think of the kinds of things that might end up recorded for posterity. I suppose the point I want to make is one a lot of other people have made: Cut Lewis Hamilton some slack. Please allow me to direct you to what David Coulthard and Maurice Hamilton have to say about the whole mess, if you haven’t read it already. They address his during-the-race maneuvers and his post-race comments more knowledgeably than I could, especially considering my own perhaps overly simplistic admiration of both aggressive racing and unguarded speech.

After watching video of Hamilton’s moves on Massa and Maldonado roughly a million times, I was still unable to decide who was definitively at fault. Lucky thing I’m not a steward, right? On balance, it’s hard for me not to conclude that Hamilton’s penalties were overly harsh, as I almost always would in such a situation. At the same time, though, I also acknowledge that I’m not out there in a car racing against him, in which case I might feel a bit differently. I just don’t know. I can speak only as a fan — a fan who relishes very aggressive driving, as many fans do. I don’t want Lewis Hamilton to change the kind of racer he is. Luckily, he seems to have no intention of doing that anytime soon, despite all the flak and penalties.

Does racial bias have anything at all to do with how often Lewis Hamilton is penalized by the stewards? I don’t have nearly enough information to even begin to address that question. That being said, it seems a major factor in his frequent penalization might be his particular style of racing, a style that many people at least claim to want to see more of but that is likely to end up in more contact and crashes than others. It’s possible that, with time, he’ll be able to set his anger and frustration aside more effectively in situations like that in Monaco, but I would not want him to change his basic approach for anything.

Well, That Was…Terrifying

During the red flagged portion of today’s qualifying, when no news was available about Sergio Perez’s condition and while all manner of terrifying scenarios were running through everyone’s minds, I thought I would at least make an attempt at completing some meaningless yet necessary tasks to pass the agonizing time. I gave that up in a hurry, though, when I tried writing my landlord’s address on an envelope and couldn’t even form letters, my hands were shaking so hard.

I know I was far from alone there. The only acceptable sequence of events that includes a crash goes like this: (1) a crash happens; (2) the disgruntled driver removes the steering wheel and jumps out of the car. When minutes tick by without step 2 happening, when the ambulance arrives and screens are put up to hide what is going on, and when there isn’t radio communication with the driver confirming he’s okay, it’s hard not to have the worst-case scenario at least nudge its way into the back of your mind. This, after all, was where Karl Wendlinger crashed back in the terrible year of 1994, and this was the crash that people, during morning practice, had been sighing sighs of relief over Nico Rosberg not having.

To learn that Perez has nothing more than a mild concussion and a bruised thigh was both a massive relief and an illustration of how safe F1 cars are these days. In fact, I read that if it were up to him, he’d be racing tomorrow. Of course, his doctors have other ideas! No Monaco Grand Prix for him this year. Regardless, he seems to be in good spirits, if his posts on Twitter are any indication.

Before that shunt, Perez was having a great day of qualifying, making it into Q3 for the first time. Monaco seems to be a good circuit for him — he won there last year in GP2 — and it’s really unfortunate he won’t be able to race there this year. But he’ll have next year to show what he can do in Monaco, and he’ll have the remainder of this year, for that matter, to show what else he can do — and if that same crash had happened twenty years ago, what are the odds that would have been the case?

Formula 1 TV Series? YES PLEASE.

Last week’s issue of New York magazine featured a series of articles on television. In one of them, an article about the US cable channel AMC, an upcoming (well, hopefully it’s still upcoming) series about “an American who enters the Formula 1 scene” in 1960s Italy is briefly mentioned. The article also says a “current racer” was brought in to help pitch the idea.

I know I read about this series a while back, but I can’t remember many details, and I definitely don’t remember a current racer being involved. Any idea who it was? This would have been sometime during the period March 7–9. The article didn’t actually specify that it was a current F1 racer, so I suppose it could have been just about anyone. In fact, come to think of it, this would have coincided with preseason testing in Barcelona, so it almost certainly wasn’t a current F1 driver.

In any case, I REALLY hope this series ends up getting made and aired. AMC series tend to be held in very high regard here (think Mad Men), and something like this has the potential to get a lot of people interested in the sport. Fingers crossed…