Challenging times ahead all round
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reflects on the significance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's runaway win in Japan, questions Lewis Hamilton's rationale for trading a McLaren for a Mercedes and calls for Romain Grosjean to be given time to mend his ways....
Last Updated: 11/10/12 2:23pm
Sebastian Vettel is right to say, despite only five races to go, that nothing is certain regarding the championship. For much of the year Fernando Alonso has looked unassailable out front. Mark Webber convincingly won the British Grand Prix and signed a new agreement with Red Bull with the championship looking a serious possibility. Partly through bad luck he has scored only 18 points in the following six races.
Lewis Hamilton brilliantly won the Italian Grand Prix in a McLaren which seemed as if it had nosed ahead to be the dominant car. Then gearbox failure while leading in Singapore and a lacklustre Japanese GP put the brakes on his surge to championship glory in short order.
There remain 125 points on the table in the next few weeks and Vettel is now only four behind Alonso at a time when Red Bull appear to have finally hit the sweet spot with their car. In Suzuka Vettel was cruising to victory, simply popping in the occasional fastest lap to relieve the boredom out front.
In the sister car Mark Webber in many ways put in the drive of the race having been reversing out of the barriers in turn two at one point. A damaged car, a pit stop and being twenty seconds behind the pack on the safety car restart, and being forced to one stop when most were struggling on two stops, didn't prevent him from coming through the field to collect ninth place.
The Red Bull was mighty and with the double DRS which helps their qualifying pace significantly, they now should have the grid positions to once again control races. Unless Ferarri turn up with a major step forward in performance then Alonso will now need all of his guile and luck to win the title. Furthermore Sebastian Vettel always seems to step up a gear in this end of season global bonanza too. His focus intensifies where some others jet lag.
As for Hamilton I'm struggling to understand his rationale and explanation for leaving McLaren. If it's really to create world domination with a 'struggling team' (bet they liked that line at Mercedes) it would be easier to propel McLaren, a set up he is already totally immersed in, to glorious victory. Instead it's Jenson Button who's turned up and made McLaren his own.
Lewis says he wants to emulate Michael Schumacher to become a true great. When Michael left Benetton (then 27 as Lewis is now) along with many key team personnel to head to Ferrari in 1996 he had achieved two world championships in a team that had most likely peaked. He went into a Ferrari environment which had a dominant position in key aspects of F1 and 100% of their resources were focussed on him as were the tyre suppliers Bridgestone. Michael set up living quarters and a gym at Fiorano, and, matching the tremendous hands-on work ethic of his boss Jean Todt, set about rebuilding Ferrari with great intensity.
It took four years to get it right but he had assembled a long list of 'unfair advantages' that every competitive person strives for. His political and man management skills clearly matched his prodigious speed and ability.
It will be fascinating to observe Lewis at Mercedes Benz to see if he can add this kind of value outside of the car. I haven't noticed these qualities in him yet but maybe in the McLaren system they have not been required.
What I have seen is a man with barely believable speed and skill behind the wheel of a racing car. It strikes me he should be doing five things in his life right now; Driving, debriefing with the team, training, laughing, and making love. Being part of the everyday team management is not one of them.
If he'd said that after so long at McLaren and that he simply needed fresh oxygen and a new environment it would have made a lot more sense. Niki Lauda created some brilliant sales patter to get his man and Lewis bought it. Now it'll be down to Ross Brawn to manage Lewis's speed, strengths and weaknesses into a fast car and a stabilising environment. McLaren couldnt do that, maybe Mercedes can.
A more urgent fix is needed for Romain Grosjean. I'm told by several people involved that through his junior Formula racing he was hard on a car and incident prone. He probably does need the help of someone like Sir Jackie Stewart although it would have been better if this was public afterwards rather than beforehand.
I believe Grosjean's pace and ability deserve time and attention for his undeniable problem with contact in close combat, especially on the first lap when so much is going on. At those moments it's pure instinct but he is making the wrong decisions under pressure. Assuming his eyesight his fine then his brain must be processing information in the wrong way at those critical moments. It cannot be a run of bad luck and yet it's surely fixable and I wish him luck. He won't get many more chances.
Talk to you from Korea.