From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.35 :: NO.01 :: Jan. 05, 2012

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2011 REVISITED / FORMULA ONE

Vettel! Nothing more to tell!

Sebastian Vettel is relatively new to Formula One, having made his debut only in 2007. He is only 24, but is already being hailed as one of the greatest drivers in the sport. With two successive world championships under his belt, are we now witnessing the start of the Vettel Era? Most people would love to believe so. Over to G. Raghunath.

Numbers, they say, seldom give a clear picture of an athlete's true performance, but in the case of the youngest double world champion, Sebastian Vettel, they do. Eleven victories, 17 podium finishes and a world record 15 pole positions from 19 races last season! It was an out-and-out Vettel show, meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed.

The world champion's domineering presence last season is analogous to what Michael Schumacher, the winner of a record seven world championships and one of the greatest Formula One drivers of all-time, majestically demonstrated in 2004 when he won 13 of the 18 races. Strangely enough, the year after marked the beginning of the end of what most Formula One buffs regard as ‘The Schumacher Era', a period when the German, driving for Ferrari, won five successive world championships, beginning in 2000.

Vettel is relatively new to Formula One, having made his debut only in 2007. He is only 24, but is already being hailed as one of the greatest drivers in the sport. With two successive world championships under his belt, are we now witnessing the start of the Vettel Era? Most people would love to believe so.

The year 2011 clearly belonged to Vettel and Red Bull, which secured its second successive constructors' championship. But there were quite a few side-shows and cameos that spiced up an otherwise dreary season where the world championship was settled with four of the 19 races still to be run, and where the big guns, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes, hung fire.

The former head of Renault, Flavio Briatore, once claimed that Jenson Button was only as fast as a ‘paracarro', which, translated in English, means a concrete pillar. Even more heartless were the comments made by crepe-hangers who suggested that his world title triumph in 2009 was a ‘fluke'.

In 2011 the McLaren driver proved that he is still a force in Formula One, winning three Grands Prix, finishing on the podium a dozen times and reeling out three fastest laps. Essentially, he was the only driver who seemed capable of challenging Vettel's imperious run. The Briton denied Vettel victories in two races — the Canadian Grand Prix and the Hungarian Grand Prix — and came close to overhauling the German in the final lap of the Singapore Grand Prix.

His tremendous drive in the rain-hit Canadian Grand Prix, where he overtook Vettel in one sweeping manoeuvre on the final lap after the Red Bull driver demurred and went slightly off his racing line, was a clear demonstration of Button's brilliance. And come to think of it, it wasn't roses, roses all the way for Button who was forced to make five pit stops. A collision with Hamilton, a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the safety car and a puncture very nearly killed Button's chances that day. But the fighter that he is, Button pulled off over 25 overtaking manoeuvres to win the race.

Foes turn friends

The notoriety that the Lewis Hamilton-Felipe Massa skirmishes earned last season far exceeded what the two drivers actually managed to accomplish for their respective teams on the track. Beleaguered by lacklustre performances, consumed by self doubts and forsaken by his family and girlfriend, the McLaren driver wasn't exactly having an enjoyable season. His counterpart from Ferrari too was roughing it out, struggling to find his form of 2008 when he had narrowly lost the world championship to his bête noir Hamilton.

Incidentally, Massa and Hamilton became bitter rivals after the 2008 season. The two drivers were involved in no less than six run-ins last season and the McLaren team head Martin Whitmarsh jocularly described their propensity to clash on the track as “magnetic”.

Massa and Hamilton seemed headed for a collision course in the final race of the season too, but the latter packed up with a blown gearbox and another confrontation was averted. Later, after the race at Interlagos (Brazilian Grand Prix), the two drivers smoked the peace pipe. Hamilton reportedly met Massa in the paddock and the two smiled and hugged each other.

The Iceman cometh

In November 2011, Lotus Renault announced the return of Kimi Raikkonen to Formula One with great fanfare. Having hired the 2007 world champion on a two-year contract, the team expects the Finn to turn it into a serious contender.

Known as Iceman in the Formula One circuit, Raikkonen had been competing in the World Rally Championship and NASCAR since 2009. Many in the circuit say his motivation at this stage of his career could be suspect, but Raikkonen insists, “I am more motivated than ever and I don't think I've lost any speed.”

Whether he has the motivation or not, Raikkonen's return means there would be six word champions on the grid. What a sight!

Losing voice

The Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) isn't the organisation it was a few years ago when it held complete control and presented a unified voice during discussions with the world governing body, FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile), and the Formula One Group, which promotes the World Championship. Early December two leading teams, Ferrari and Red Bull, walked out of the alliance citing the breakdown of the Resource Restriction Agreement. (The agreement defines limits pertaining to the size of staff that the teams can employ and expenditures they can incur on research and development.)

Cynicism and distrust has been the epicentre of the issue as Ferrari and a few other teams have grown increasingly suspicious about Red Bull actually adhering to the Resource Restriction Agreement. Red Bull, on the other hand, has insisted that it has always operated within the agreement and it was teams backed by manufacturers — such as Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren — that were hiding their additional work and expenditures.

With the threat of a few more teams breaking away from the alliance looming large, the future of FOTA hangs in the balance.

What's in store for 2012?

The new rules in force from 2012 are expected to change the way teams race. The major rule changes are:

As part of its clampdown on engine mapping and exhaust positioning, the FIA has ruled blown diffusers as illegal from 2012.

In-season testing returns as teams are now permitted to carry out one three-day test during the season. And with the accent on safety, before on-track testing all the new cars have to pass crash tests.

In order to give the leaders an unhindered run, lapped drivers will be allowed to unlap themselves during a safety-car period.

Longest season

The year 2012 would be the longest in the history of Formula One. With the Bahrain Grand Prix (it was abandoned last year following political unrest in the country) back in the fold and Austin hosting its first race, the United States Grand Prix, the new season will have 20 races.

* * *

A circuit with pedigree, never mind the mongrel

In the run-up to the Grand Prix of India there were apprehensions about the successful conduct of the race. First it was the threat of a protest by a section of the farmers from Greater Noida who felt they had not been adequately compensated for the land they had conceded to the organisers for the construction of the Buddh International Circuit. Then, there were exasperating complaints from a few irascible team principals who raised the bogey of “too much dust” on the track and warned that it could sour what many anticipated would be exciting and trouble-free racing. However, the first few hours of the first free practice on the first day of the racing weekend — despite a vagrant mongrel holding up the installation laps for a brief while — proved the doomsayers completely wrong.

While the farmers' threat blew over without a whimper, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton showed what the low-slung open wheel Formula One cars are capable of — despite the dust — on the new and expansive BIC track. Later, in the qualifiers and during the Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel confirmed the joy of driving on the BIC track.

“Surely, there are little bits that are not 100 per cent but now the people know so they will fix that. I think all in all it was fantastic,” the youngest double world champion said after the race. “It's a fantastic event. I can't wait to come back here,” Vettel added.

By taking the pole position, leading the entire race and recording the fastest lap time (1:27.249s over the 5.125 km track), Sebastian Vettel achieved what in Formula One parlance is called the ‘Grand Chelem'.

The successful conduct of the Grand Prix of India nailed one big truth: that India has the ability to host a world-class event.



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