Conclusions from the British GP
Asking the wrong question with McLaren, Fernando's latest Houdini act, and where next for Paul di Resta and Sebastian Vettel...
Last Updated: 09/07/12 1:52pm
Don't write off McLaren yet. But...
And then there were two? Red Bull and Ferrari - one and two on Saturday; one, two, three and four on Sunday - would like to think so, but it would be foolish to write off McLaren in such a fickle season. Foolish and inappropriate; the team fell so far flat this weekend that if the question is to be asked whether Red Bull and Ferrari are now poised to enter into a two-team, three-car battle for the championship, then the answer must first begin with an appraisal of Lotus and Mercedes' prospects.
McLaren have disappeared off the front-running radar since returning from Canada and whether they are now merely fifth fastest or sixth slowest is irrelevant compared to the point brutally highlighted by Red Bull boss Christian Horner afterwards: "McLaren were never really a factor in the race."
They weren't, and most alarmingly of all, they weren't a leading presence in either the race run on the soft tyres or the longer version on the hards. They were simply slow from start to finish with Button's fastest lap of the race one-and-a-half seconds off the leading pace and Hamilton - fifteenth in the fastest lap charts - a further tenth-of-a-second adrift of where McLaren were at the start of the season. How the mighty have fallen? It's not even that reassuring just yet because the brutal reality is that McLaren could and should have fallen further still on Sunday with only the various mistakes of Nico Hulkenberg, Kamui Kobayashi and Pastor Maldonado, which resulted in the luckless demise of Sergio Perez, sparing Button and Hamilton the abject humiliation of relegation to the lower reaches of the midfield.
Like a Silverstone car park, McLaren were made to look a sorry mess this weekend. Just how has it come to this? From leading the way in Australia, McLaren are suddenly lost in no-man's land and, as Damon Hill remarked with evident confusion, it's almost as if there's a secret that the rest of the field have worked out since Melbourne which McLaren are yet to fathom.
In the absence of any other convincing explanation for why they've retreated into a midfield wilderness, one theory worth peddling is that the team took a wrong turn when Button lurched into crisis mode after Bahrain, taking a misguiding lead from a driver whose technical feedback they came to rely upon and implicitly trust last season but whose precise style runs kilter to this year's instability born of the ban on exhaust-blowing diffusers. An unneverving line from Mark Hughes' latest column into the team's ongoing demise is that 'when Button suggested a new direction after Bahrain, the team did not question it'. Since then, driver and team have been racing up a dead end and even in Canada, when Hamilton triumphed, there was a tell-tale clue in Jenson's horror-show that McLaren were slowly becoming undone. Now it seems they've lost their way to the extent of losing all sense of direction.
There's time for a recovery and optimism to be taken from Ferrari's turnaround, but whereas Ferrari understood almost from the day of its birth why the F2012 was flawed, the fear surrounding McLaren is that are baffled by their loss of performance. No doubt Button and Hamilton both meant well when they reported on Sunday night that the MP4-27 had felt good (or, as Lewis put it, "our car doesn't feel bad"), but that implied reassurance was the truly frightening thing about their day and the predicament that now awaits the team back at base: just as you can't fix something when you don't know what's broke, you can't win a development war when you don't what battle you're fighting.
Speed, not strategy, defeated Ferrari
The other puzzle of Sunday was why Ferrari's strategy ultimately proved defeatist because, regardless of whether or not they erroneously expected rain to fall during the race, starting on the hards should have been the correct decision.
With Webber starting on the faster soft compound, the critical advantage which ought to have worked in Alonso's favour is that not only would the softs be faster at the end of the race rather than the start due to the track 'rubbering in' and therefore causing less graining, but Webber would have been compromised by the removal of DRS for the opening laps and Alonso thus able to block his way despite being slower. And, of course, Ferrari would have all bases covered by the halfway stage if rain began to fall.
Yet they still lost. Why? The explanation is surely a straightforward matter of speed - which Ferrari had less of than both Red Bull and Lotus. A return to the fastest-laps charts finds Alonso just eighth, a statistic which starkly illustrates just how well Ferrari's resident genius did to retain second place, let alone lead the race for so long. If his grand prix weekend has a story, it's a tale of escapology - from surviving a spin and a yellow flag in qualifying, to ultimately beating Sebastian Vettel on account of Michael Schumacher's road-block through the opening ten laps of the race.
Lotus still in a losing position with winning pace
Seventeen seconds behind Mark Webber at the finish, what if Romain Grosjean hadn't dumped his Lotus into the gravel at the end of Q2 on Saturday? The answer is that he would surely have challenged for victory and very probably claimed it.
The fact that the ever-increasingly impressive Frenchman ended up so close to the Red Bull despite also being forced to pit for a new nose on the first lap is another cause for what-if wistfulness, but actually rather misleading: all it meant was that Grosjean was able to dump the softs early on and run five laps longer than scheduled on each of his two stints on the hards. It was, in short, no big deal.
Nonetheless, the point that can't be overlooked that is the two cars top of Sunday's fastest-laps charts were both Lotuses; the only matter of contention is whether that position ought to give the team satisfaction or concern that yet another winnable race has slipped from their grasp. Only time will be the teller.
Pastor is the black sheep of the flock
So what will it take for Pastor Maldonado to receive a race ban? 'A permanent race-steward' is as good as answer as any - and probably a little more objective than most. His latest infringement wasn't as inexcusable as his ram into the side of Hamilton two weeks ago, or as seemingly-deliberate as he barge into the side of Perez in Monaco practice two months ago, but under any sort of totting-up process the Williams driver would surely be facing a suspension rather than a pathetically-paltry fine and an pointless reprimand that is an insult to the meaning of the word.
For the good of motorsport, a ban is now required. F1 is the pinnacle of the profession and Maldonado's recklessness is rapidly debasing the sport's credibility. What sort of message is F1 sending out by reacting with such feeble impunity to a clear and obvious danger amongst its elite? The absence of a permanent presence amongst the stewards explains why Maldonado's lengthy crime-sheet has seemingly not been taken into cumulative account as yet, but it's an obstacle that the governing body can easily swerve by charging the South American with bringing the sport into disrepute. Which, by any reasonable definition, is exactly what he has done and what they should do.
Two's a crowd at Red Bull for Sebastian
So who's the number two at Red Bull now? Sebastian Vettel's unease and uncertainty at being so convincingly beaten by his team-mate was evident in Red Bull's post-race press release in which the World Champion reflected on a "tough day" before concluding: "I would be a bit happier if we had won today". But Red Bull had won, and if his own victory wouldn't have brought satisfaction, what would?
Vettel didn't drive badly this weekend, it's just that Webber drove better, capitalising on his latest internal qualifying victory whilst his team-mate "got stuck behind Michael". Silverstone, for all the accolades it receives, is a pain to overtake around and a third-place finish was a decent result for Vettel given his starting position and the fact that he hadn't seen a podium since Bahrain.
The problem, though, is that after the domination of 2011 and spending eighteen months as the clear number one at Red Bull, Vettel has become used to too much of a good thing. And perhaps spoilt. His reaction next week to the pressure being exerted by the revitalised Webber, and the weight of expectation that must be burdened in front of his home support, will be fascinating to behold.
Hamilton's the key to the driver market, but Webber is the locksmith
With Mercedes poised to make a decision on the future of Michael Schumacher, Paul di Resta has picked a bad time to suffer back-to-back defeats to Nico Hulkenberg. Then again, performance might not be the decisive factor when the time comes for his future to be determined.
It's a pertinent question to be asked ahead of F1's decampment to Hockenheim, but do Mercedes see themselves as a global brand or a German team? If it's the former then Di Resta will be the first in the queue to replace a retiring Schumacher; if it's the latter then it will probably make no difference at all if he ends the season in first place at Force India - a prospective unfairness mitigated by the axing of Adrian Sutil after he beat Di Resta at Force India last season - ahead of his German team-mate.
Instead, the driver who might open the door to bigger things for Di Resta is Mark Webber. If the Australian goes to Ferrari - and his coyness on Sunday when asked if he would be staying at Red Bull told us plenty - then it would open the way for Hamilton to transfer out of McLaren and leave Di Resta with a prime vacancy to fill. If patriot games are being played in the transfer market, how about the interest in an Englishman being pitched against a Scotsman at McLaren in 2013?
It's an enticing possibility, but the prospect of it happening depends on precisely what game Hamilton is playing: hardball with McLaren or a waiting game whilst Webber chooses between Red Bull and Ferrari.
Silverstone stays wet even in the dry
For a while there, it looked like a country fair masquerading as a world-class event had returned to Silverstone. A recovery of sorts from what was effectively a wash-out on Friday occurred over the weekend with the drastic - but plainly chastening - request to paying punters not to attend on Saturday paying a decent dividend on race-day when the traffic was merely jammed rather than gridlocked. The cost, though, will be enormous; nevermind the compensation, just think of the PR. After all the pre-event triumphing of Silverstone as a showcase for British motorsport, only sympathy for the indefatigably-cheery spectators prevented the weekend descending into a laughing stock.
The sting in the tale still to be told was the ignominious failure of the three Brits in the field to achieve a positive result and - part in consequence, part in happenstance - a race that fell a little flat (and a little short at one hour and twenty-five minutes). If the cruel irony of Friday was that too few cars were able to access the circuit whilst too few were bothering to venture out on track, the ironic shame of Sunday was that, in the midst of the wettest summer on record, it remained dry for the only two hours of the entire weekend when rain would have been welcome by all.
The 2012 British Grand Prix: It never rained but it poured.