Friday, 5 September 2014

History in the Making: The Most Exciting Formula 1 Season in Recent Memory

by Tim Bustin

The Story So Far . . .

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – 
childhood-friends turned bitter championship rivals
By now you may be sick of reading my Formula 1 articles, but it is the only sport I am able to watch and enjoy – and this season has not only been the exciting, but the most controversial, most different and best to be a British fan for years.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Two great friends, team mates back in their tender karting days, now team mates in 2014’s clearly fastest team – Mercedes. The dominance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull has ended, with the Mercedes car commanding an even larger speed margin over its rivals than the Red Bull car ever did. There are no other championship contenders this year but the Mercedes duo, and it has been a battle of Hamilton’s speed advantage against Rosberg’s cunning – but bad luck has plagued Hamilton nearly every race of the season, meaning twice he has had to claw back from 30 point deficits to Rosberg (25 points per race win, 18 for second). Now, after last week’s race in Spa, Belgium, after the first contact between Rosberg and Hamilton put the latter out of the race, tainting Rosberg’s reputation and Hamilton’s hopes, the points difference is 29 to Rosberg. 7 races left. Double points showdown in Abu Dhabi. It’s still all to play for.

Season Start – Australian GP

Does anyone, fan or not, remember the build up to the Australian Grand Prix, 6 months ago? Bookies had Hamilton tipped, with Rosberg’s odds less than evens – Mercedes were however (and still are) 1/500 to win (roughly translated – everyone’s pretty sure they’re going to win). There were question marks hanging over Toro Rosso’s new driver Daniel Kvyat, the 19 year old Russian (btw, a 16 year old just got signed to this team for next year), and over new Red Bull driver Daniel Riccardo, who had been promoted from Kvyat’s team. Excitement dripped for the start of the season, return of iconic British team Williams, the new quiet V6 engines’ differences to last year’s V8s, and the ultimate battle between Hamilton and Rosberg.

When the Grand Prix started, and Hamilton’s car broke down 2 laps later, British fans were understandably frustrated. Rosberg won, but good on him, even though Hamilton now had 25 points to make up.

Hamilton’s best run – Malaysian to Spanish GP (and the Monaco Fiasco)

Then came the most amazing four consecutive races of Hamilton’s career. He won all four, fending off Rosberg every time – a thrilling Bahrain race, dubbed ‘Race of the Century’, where Rosberg moved to overtake and Hamilton countered, then positioned to prepare for an overtake in corners ahead, forcing Hamilton to push him off the road, then again and again, in an incredibly ferocious yet intelligent battle, seemed to assert Hamilton’s dominance over his team mate, looking like the championship was already won as the points deficit was removed.

Monaco changed everything. Prestigious, glamorous, home to both drivers, and impossible to overtake, Rosberg took a controversial pole, which tainted the weekend – the winner is the pole sitter often in Monaco, and with Lewis second, Rosberg led the championship once more.

Mercedes falter – Canadian and Austrian GP

Search “Daniel Riccardo Smile” for hours and hours of fun!
So far all six races had been won by Mercedes, and every other team appeared to be merely cowering in their shadow. Even the mighty Red Bulls couldn’t compete with the Silver Arrows. Or so it seemed. When Canada came, a track people expected Hamilton to win and come back at, disaster struck. Mid-race, with Hamilton and Rosberg battling out front, both of their power units failed within minutes of each other. The power units provide a large proportion of the speed, and suddenly the over 20 second gap the two drivers had built over the rest of the field was quickly diminishing. Worse, both cars brakes were starting to struggle, the cars couldn’t continue much longer – and Hamilton’s didn’t. He was forced to retire. Rosberg limped on, but surging through the field came the dark blue and red of an impending Red Bul. But no, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel. He had been struggling all year, confirming the views of his many haters that he isn’t nearly the best driver in F1 (most notable of these is Fernando Alonso, who many say is the best F1 driver right now – though Alonso thinks it’s Hamilton). Instead the driver was his new, sensational team mate – the owner of the biggest smile in the pit lane, Australian Daniel Riccardo. He overtook Rosberg to win his first race, leaving Rosberg still gaining another 18 points on Lewis Hamilton.

Next up was Austria, and as the venue was the Red Bull Ring, the former dominators of the sport must have been feeling pretty good at the moment. But Mercedes were determined to fight back. When Red Bull changed the name of one of the track’s corners from one that honoured triple champion Niki Lauda, to one that honoured one of its sponsors, Lauda (who today is chairman of Mercedes) said they would simply have to beat them there to get revenge. Qualifying came and went, with the first non-Mercedes pole of the year – they really were starting to look more vulnerable. Instead Felipe Massa of Williams got the pole, establishing Williams as back on the map (or the F1 grid as it were) – his team mate, Valtteri Bottas, has had 4 podiums so far this year, and is another rising star of 2014. However by the race’s end Rosberg was on the podium’s top step, with Hamilton one rung below – a 29 point deficit.

Silverstone – the British GP

Now came the British fans’ race highlight of the year – Silverstone, the British Grand Prix. I’ve already gone into this in extensive detail in another article, so won’t bore you too much here. It was a race that, most importantly, brought Hamilton back into the fight. Rosberg had his first retirement of the year with an engine failure, and Hamilton drove superbly, spurred on by the British fans, to turn a poor qualifying into his fifth win of the year. It narrowed the Rosberg-Hamilton gap to 3 points, and again, all was to play for.

Hamilton’s hardest comebacks – the pits to podium story (German and Hungarian GP)

The epic Mercedes duel at Bahrain had the
two drivers millimetres apart at times
Germany: Some look on the next 2 races as the worst luck-ridden of Hamilton’s career. Others see it as the platforms to showcase why he is a truly spectacular driver, and deserves this year’s championship title. Starting with Germany, Rosberg was having a superb time. He had just married his long term girlfriend, his country had won the world cup and he had signed a new contract with Mercedes. The icing on the cake would be winning his home grand prix. Hamilton however was determined for that not to happen, stating so often that he is completely committed to winning this championship. But he didn’t get his chance. In qualifying, a sudden failure of one of his brakes caused the car to spin into an unstoppable 20+ G-Force crash, putting him 20th out 22 cars in the start for the race next day. Nico Rosberg however comfortably took the pole. The race weekend had, as Hamilton put it, turned into “damage limitation”. And whilst Rosberg comfortably won the race, changing the momentum to once again swing his way, Hamilton fought hard to work his way back up through the field – scraping past cars, driving his heart out, he managed to get all the way up into third, only to be held off in the last few laps by William’s Valtteri Bottas.

Hungary: Next came Hungry, and one of the most exhilarating races I’ve ever seen. For the sixth time in a row Hamilton had qualifying issues, and this time his car caught alight, destroying nearly the entire car, and leaving Hamilton to start from the pit lane: dead last. Rosberg took pole once more, and with Germany seeming to be echoing, Hamilton’s spirits must have been hitting rock bottom. He was doing nearly everything right, so why was everything going wrong?

The race started, and Rosberg got away quickly. Meanwhile, Hamilton had spun on the first lap, just tapping the barrier. He quickly got on his way though, blazing through the field. With the rain falling, it wasn’t long before a driver lost control, causing a safety car to be deployed. Safety cars bunch the field back up, effectively causing a moving restart. It’s also a chance to pit, and the four leaders missed out initially, and started behind new race leader – Daniel Riccardo. Once the safety car finally left, Hamilton was incredibly just 2 places behind Rosberg. A second safety car had to be deployed after a second crash, causing pit stops again. The race resumed, with Fernado Alonso leading for Ferrari, and Hamilton ahead of Rosberg. The 2 were on different tyre strategies, and so the Mercedes team asked Hamilton to let Rosberg pass. Hamilton, fighting for the world championship, refused to let his main rival pass, claiming he would have to slow down for Rosberg to be close enough to pass. This caused controversy later, but Niki Lauda and other Mercedes bosses admitted Hamilton was in the right. It was a decision that ultimately cost Rosberg the race.
The final stages of the race dawning, and the order was Alonso-Hamilton-Riccardo, then Rosberg trailing over 20 seconds, but catching 4 seconds a lap on newer tyres. Riccardo managed to pass Hamilton (suffering from a minor power unit problem), and Alonso, and unbelievably managed to get his second ever race win. In the last lap however, Rosberg was right behind Hamilton, causing Hamilton to have to use every trick in the book to fend him off, and gain 3 point on Rosberg. It was a stunning performance from both Riccardo and Hamilton, and indeed from Alonso, suffering still in an underperforming Ferrari (he has finished runner-up to Vettel in 3 of the last 4 years despite his poor car).

Controversy and a fantastic spectacle filled the media, plus the knowledge of only 11 points difference now in the Rosberg-Hamilton battle. Bring on Spa, Belgium.

Last week’s race – Spa, Belgium

A wet qualifying ensued, and Rosberg beat Hamilton to pole, this time without Hamilton’s poor luck. For the first time in an age, a great duel, like in Bahrain, seemed promised to the fans, and excitement was high. Lights out, and before the first corner Hamilton had got the drive on Rosberg and moved into first. But Rosberg wasn’t giving up easily. Same corner next lap, and Rosberg tried a risky overtake – he was far back, and attempted to go round the outside, but just didn’t have enough space, and his front wing clipped Hamilton’s left rear tyre. Puncture. The end of Lewis’s race. The explosion damaged his car, and after a slow drive to the pit stop, there was nothing he could do, eventually retiring the car. Rosberg’s damaged front wind slowed him down, and who should catch him, but once again, Daniel Riccardo. This time Riccardo was in front all-race, and though Rosberg nearly caught in the last few laps, it was Riccardo who took back-to-back victories.

So, 7 races left…

That was just last week. Rosberg now leads Hamilton by 29 points, Riccardo by 64. Some have said Riccardo now has an outside chance of stealing the championship, what with the double points gimmick in Abu Dhabi. I doubt he will, and more strange than this claim, is the desire I now have for that double points race. With Hamilton plagued ferociously by bad luck (with a few mistakes under pressure thrown in) it might just bring him back into the game. Rosberg has driven consistently, but his media image, at least here, is being shattered – after the race, Lauda and other team bosses publicly blamed Rosberg for Hamilton’s puncture and it has been revealed that Rosberg could have moved out of the way, but wanted to make a point (that he was as hard a racer as Lewis). He has been punished (most likely fined). Mercedes have promised us all year that team orders (telling one driver to move over for another) will never be used, in order to allow proper racing to be watched, so maybe this incident was inevitable. Commentators, such as former team boss Eddie Jordan, have blamed Mercedes’ management of its drivers, and for allowing hard racing so early on in the race, which allowed Riccardo to win. For us fans however, this season has been amazing to watch both on and off track. Instinctive racer Lewis has been worse in managing what he says to the media (he has appeared sullen at time, and occasionally resorted to mind games) whilst calm and collected Nico has made more on-track mistakes. Of course there’s also been the rising star Valtteri Bottas to watch, Wiliiams’ return, Riccardo constantly trumping Vettel, McLaren’s slight return to form, Maurissia’s first ever points. But next week at Monza, Italy, and for the following 6 races to come, all eyes will be most firmly fixed on the childhood-friends turned bitter-rivals of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and their epic, history making, world championship battle for the title of 2014.

The Points Table (so far)

As of: Belgian Grand Prix





1 Rosberg - Mercedes



2 Hamilton - Mercedes




3 Ricciardo - Red Bull




4 Alonso - Ferrari




5 Bottas - Williams




6 Vettel - Red Bull




7 Hulkenberg - Force India




8 Button - McLaren




9 Massa - Williams




10 Raikkonen - Ferrari






Kevin Magnussen - McLaren





12 Perez - Force India





13 Vergne - Toro Rosso




14 Grosjean - Lotus





Daniil Kvyat - Toro Rosso




16 Bianchi - Marussia




17 Sutil - Sauber





Marcus Ericsson - Caterham




19 Maldonado - Lotus




20 Gutierrez - Sauber




21     Max Chilton – Marussia                                                                                       0             220           0
22  Kamui Kobayashi – Caterham                                                                                0            220            0       

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