F1 Tops and Flops of 2012, Part 2 – The midfielders

After one of my friends published Part 1 of my Tops and Flops on Reddit, I received some nice feedback.

In particular, I was called “an ass” because I compared Mercedes’s expectations in F1 to those of a panzer division in Poland. Or, people simply told me I did not know anything about Formula One at all.

For these reasons, I felt even more motivated to write Part 2 of my Tops and Flops. After focusing on the first-liners, let’s move to the midfield, which means, that no-man’s land which includes teams like Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso, and which often sees some of the greatest battles on the track.

Sauber is a Top without any doubt. I mean, have you seen it? The C31 is a hell of a car, surely the best Sauber since 2001 (and excluding the BMW era). They are now fighting for the fifth position in the championship with Mercedes (yup, the panzers) and, with one race to go, drivers Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi will have to do their best to recover 13 points.

Which means, for example, a podium, which Perez has already achieved three times this year. No wonder why McLaren offered him a contract for next season, after Lewis Hamilton signed for Mercedes (seriously, what is wrong with him?).
On the other hand, Kobayashi really impressed me since his debut at the end of 2009, and he was even considered a serious candidate for a seat in a top-team. Especially because he was backed by Toyota, which unfortunately retired before the 2010 season. Even though I would not consider him a Flop at all, I was surely expecting more from him. He is now just eight points behind Perez, but he struggled in the first half of the championship. He is without a seat for next year, who is ready to give this young guy a chance to finally emerge?

Maybe Force India, which lost Nico Hulkenberg who decided to sign for Sauber, indeed. However, a swap of drivers is unlikely to happen, given the fact that Kobayashi might lose his sponsor and the difficult financial situation of patron Vijay Mallya.

Force India is definitely another one of my Flops. Not because of this year only, but because of all the past years’ results altogether. They arrived in Formula One in 2008, on the ashes of the former Spyker F1, which was Midland before that, and which was called Jordan until 2005. Which used to have the best pit babes of the lot. But that is not the point now.

In five years, they have been able to score one single podium, in 2009, with Giancarlo Fisichella at Spa. And what a podium for the Italian driver, finishing second following his pole position on Saturday. After that, however, the team has stuck where it still is now, in the midfield, navigating between P6, P7 or P8 in the constructor’s championship. Their technical director, until 2010, was James Key, the man behind this year’s Sauber, and this year’s line-up is not bad at all, with Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta, the latter being a good bet for a top team, in the future.

Talking about James Key, he will not be working on next year’s Sauber because he was hired by Toro Rosso, my second Flop team today. They are the last of the best. The last that can be considered a Formula 1 team before the world of unknown. They are like Neptune: the solar system is not over yet, but you have to travel a long way before you can find Pluto.

This is what Toro Rosso is, sadly. Powered by Ferrari engines, as well as Sauber, they used to be Red Bull’s junior team. After the teams have been forced to build their cars fully (until 2010, TR used the RB car from the previous year), the team has fallen into disgrace. Last year’s line-up, Buemi and Alguersuari, were replaced by two almost-debutant drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.

They scored 22 points this year, which means ninth place. The team fired technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, who joined them in 2007, and he is surely not the most inexperienced men in F1. Sebastian Vettel won his first career race with Toro Rosso in an extremely wet Italian GP at Monza, in 2008. This remains the first and only victory for the team, which replaced the even-more unsuccessful Minardi.

Not much to say about this team, just that I would like to see them battling for something more than an occasional ninth or tenth position. But that is like wishing that Caterham, Marussia or HRT were proper F1 cars, rather than fast GP2 cars.

Stay tuned for the last part!

Alonso wins in Malaysia

Fernando Alonso gained an unexpected victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday.

The Spaniard won ahead of Sauber’s underdog Sergio Perez and poleman Lewis Hamilton.

The heavy rain affected the race, which was interrupted after only nine laps due to visibility and safety problems. After a 45-minute break, the race was started again under the safety car.

Fernando Alonso, who started from 8th, gained advantage by his strategy, since he changed his tyres to the “Intermediate” compound before all of the others.

The right choice made at the right moment allowed him to take the leadership of the race with large advantage.

Nevertheless, he was helped in this by the fact that the current leader, Jenson Button, had to head back to the pits to change a tyre flattened after a contact with Narain Karthikeyan, who was surprisingly in the top ten.

From this moment on, Alonso started to gain more and more advantage over the others, while Perez, who started from 9th, was able to maintain his second position.

None of the big contenders (McLarens, Red bulls and Felipe Massa) were able to keep up with the pace of the first two drivers, who put more than 15 seconds between them and the rest of the group.

However, Perez was going to catch Alonso in the last laps of the Grand Prix, when his team told him “Be careful, this result is very important to us.”

Maybe distracted by this radio announcement, he made a mistake going wide when he was almost behind the Ferrari driver.

Not a big deal: he could recover but he was unable to catch what would have been the first victory for him and for his team.

“It’s an unbelievable result for us, today,” Alonso told in the post-race press conference. “We were not competitive in Australia, we were not competitive here, so it’s an unbelievable result.”

However, as he admits, “this changes nothing. We are in a position that we don’t want: we want to fight for pole positions, for victories. There is still much work to do on the car, but we trust each other a lot in the team.”

The championship now sees the Spaniard first, five points ahead of Hamilton and 10 on Jenson Button, who scored a none, as well as reigning champion Sebastian Vettel.

The circus will move to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix, on the 15th of April.


Comments on the 2011 F1 season

This year’s Formula 1 championship ended yesterday, with a Red Bull 1-2 to conclude a championship which has been largely dominated by the Austrian-British team. Let me analyse the protagonists one by one, with my personal marks to the drivers.

Sebastian Vettel, 10: the undisputed leader and winner. 15 pole positions (new record), 11 victories and 17 podiums in 19 races; the younger double world-champion of history. He is only 24. Do I need to say anything else? Many Italian journalists still do not recognise his talent, but they are deliberately lying, and they know. Maybe they will change their minds once he jumps on a red car.

Mark Webber, 6: the great absent. Last year he fought for the title, this year he has scored more points than 2010, but with just one victory in the last race. Thanks to that, he could finish in third position ahead of Alonso for just one point. He has never been into this championship and he knows it; next year will be his last chance to drive for a competitive team.

Jenson Button, 9: considering what his ex team manager Flavio Briatore said about him in 2009(“He’s a concrete post” –“paracarro”, in Italiano), well, he has shown his best performance this year. He won the 2009 championship but, honestly, this has been his best year so far. He simply put his team mate Lewis Hamilton in shadows, and the final second position is there to prove it.

Lewis Hamilton, 6.5: where to start from? Maybe we (and he) will remember this year for his love/hate affair with Felipe Massa. They have come into contact five times, and they were so close again yesterday, before his gearbox decided to break down. His worst season so far, his vote should be 6, the plus is for amusing us with his style.

Fernando Alonso, 8: he also has had the best season of his career. He scored the only victory for Ferrari (thanks to that, it has been 18 years consecutively with at least one victory), with a car which was very far under the expectations after last year. When he realised that there was nothing to do but suffering, instead of getting depressed he gave the best of himself, showing the fighter he really is.

Felipe Massa, 5: was he actually part of the group? It has not been the same since his accident in Hungary 2009; last year, at Hockenheim, when he had to let Alonso pass, put a mark in his behaviour. He has been constantly depressed since then, and we can understand it. But a 30-year-old Ferrari driver who has been World champion for five turns in 2008 must react as soon as possible.

Nico Rosberg, 6.5: it is now for him to win a race. He has been part of the circus since 2006, but he has never had a truly competitive car (except in some races last year); Mercedes was supposed to be competitive since its return in 2010, but it has not shown its potential yet. Is it going to end like BMW did two years ago? I hope for Nico it is not.

Michael Schumacher, 7.5: the 8th position in the championship, just 13 points behind his team mate, is there to show that he can still have his say. He is an old lion, he is not giving up; God bless such old-school drivers. Same issue as with Rosberg: this year he has shown great things with great fights (Canada, 4th, and Belgium and Italy, 5th), but since Mercedes is like this…

Rapidly through some of the others:

Kamui Kobayashi, 7: a consistent first half of the season, then, as tradition, Sauber lacks of updates and the results can hardly come. He is more like an old-school driver (like Hamilton is), always ready to try. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, but this is the right attitude.

Sergio Perez, 6: the best deb for me, but not according to the championship points. He has shown pretty good things, but his problem was that he has not been constant. He is part of the Ferrari Driver Academy to seek for new talents to bring to Maranello: he is on the right way to make a good impression, we will see next year how he will have improved.

Rubens Barrichello, 5: this year’s Williams has been one of the worst ever, but he has not been better than his car. Often behind his deb team mate Maldonado in qualifying, he has never shown the will to react. He is looking for a seat next year, but honestly, where can he go other than Williams? HRT? Better to retire then, Rubinho…

Jarno Trulli, 5: the Lotus-Renault (the green/yellow one) is not the best of the field, but it is the best of the rest. However, he has not shown his best attitude this year, often being beaten by his team mate Kovalainen. According to some rumors, he is going to be replaced by the deb Daniel Ricciardo, from HRT and supported by Red Bull, although he has another contract year with Lotus.

Renault Lotus (the black and gold one), 6: they started the season brillianty, but after a while they decided to replace the overall-good Nick Heidfeld with the not-so-reliable Bruno Senna. The result? Petrov brought 37 points in 19 races, Heidfeld 34 points in 11, Senna 2 points in 7 races, and the team could hold the 5h position ahead of Force India for just 4 points. They suffered the lack of Robert Kubica, maybe next year Kimi Raikkonen will bring some more to this once-winning team.

That’s all, folks!

Picture: http://www.flickr.com