Monday, 21 April 2014

Bahrain + Shanghai - "Daniel Is Faster Than You"

Watching the Bahrain and Chinese GPs - watching Lewis Hamilton take one easy win and one hard-fought one, listening to Vettel get the call to "move over and let Daniel by please," twice - I felt a bit like Beavis & Butthead watching an arthouse movie: "This MEANS something."

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It's not just the relief that my favourite driver is on track for his second World Championship - it's waaaay too early to be making calls like that. The F1 World Championship is a three-stage thing, like a good trigger sequence. First there's the early fly-away rounds that are run with the same machinery each time, purely because it's too hard to get upgrades made and flown out to whatever up-and-coming national economy Bernie's decided to grace next in a timely manner. So all the early rounds are usually won by the same people representing whichever team built the best car in the off-season. At the moment that's Mercedes, who did a Brawn and sacrificed last year's dead-end car to steal a march on this year, not that surprising when Mercedes IS the old Brawn team under new management. They've now laid the foundation for a run at the title, but that's in no way the same as clinching the thing for real because the next phase is the hard part - the long European summer, eight races run only hours from the team factories churning out new windtunnel data and upgrade gubbins 24/7. The real season, in other words, the bit that makes it Formula 1 and not just GP1. That's where titles are won and lost. So all credit to Nico and Lewis for taking four-from-four, but it's not done yet. They've only taken the safety catch off.

So the real interest is over at Red Bull, especially the RB10 driven by Daniel Ricciardo, which seems to be much faster than the one on the other side of the garage. Let's be honest, did any of us ever expect to hear Vettel get the call, "Sebastian, Daniel's faster than you, move over and let him by please"? No way. This was supposed to be Sebastian's team, wasn't it? The one where he'd spend his whole career raking in titles as Red Bull's golden boy? It's come as a very welcome proof of how F1 teams operate, that there really are no favourites, that fast is fast.
It doesn’t matter if the guy has got number one written on his forehead or tattooed over his whole body. If he’s second fastest, he’s number two. Period. - Alastair Caldwell, former McLaren engineering chief

You cannot make someone slower by contract... If he’s faster he’s faster. And whoever is faster is going to be the number one. – Michael Schumacher

The Schumacher quote is chosen deliberately. It was originally said when Rubens Barrichello joined him at Ferrari, and although it's finally starting to fade into history, the modern sport of Formula 1 is still run under the shadow of those days. We never got to see Schumi get his comeuppance for dominating so completely (and we're not sick enough to see a severe coma as any kind of justice - #KeepFightingMichael) so I have to wonder how much of the glee at Sebastian being shown up by his junior teammate is leftover from the red days a decade ago.

Image via CNN

But why is the lad with the hips from WA suddenly on top at Red Bull in the first place? Well, I'm a bit annoyed that Crofty and Brundle said it on the telly first and I won't get any credit, but I'm guessing Seb just doesn't have a feel for this new car. It's certainly not because he's suddenly revealed as an average driver (that would amount to saying the same of Mark Webber, and no true Aussie is going to say that). Seb really came into his own with the arrival of Pirelli's tyres - he won two championships easily by sprinting away at the start and controlling the race from there. What's interesting is he was able to be light years faster than anyone else without ruining his rear tyres, which speaks of some truly phenomenal throttle control. He drives with an amazingly soft touch, like a classical violinist, pushing the car right to the edge of its grip but not a bit beyond. Throw in blown- or double-diffusers sticking the rear of the car to the track, and you get a driver that's probably found a lot of his speed since 2009 by getting on the throttle early and modulating it to the contours of each corner just right.

Beautiful. Now put him in a car with turbo lag.

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These aren't the big-boost turbo cars of the 80's, of course, more like the old Lola-Fords of CART's glory days, engines with a fantastic stack of torque up to 11,000rpm and then a brief whack of turbo at the top. Seeing the onboard shots of drivers getting caught by surprise and correcting it mid-corner looks startlingly like Alex Zanardi back when he still had his legs. Fun to watch, and fun for the driver who doesn't mind getting sideways, but for a softy like Seb it's bam, advantage gone. The car's always kicking sideways just when you don't want it to, no matter how carefully you apply the power. Contrast that with roughly-hewn mastery of Lewis Hamilton, the metal guitarist to Seb's concert violinist, equally precise but much more comfortable with some on-the-spot improv. Lewis is at his best arriving at the apex in a four-wheel drift, and he spent some years in McLarens that handled like dogs, he's not especially worried about turbo lag kicking out the rear end every so often.

And on the other side of the Red Bull garage? A young man hardened by a few years in awful backmarkers with no power, no grip and almost no crash testing - Red Bull bought him a seat at HRT, remember. A man with no experience of the RB9, 8, 7 or 6. A man who doesn't know what he's been missing.

*Kssh* "Sebastian, vamos Daniel través por favor... Daniel es más rápido que tú... Déjalo por favor..."

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