Conclusions From Valencia

Date published: June 26 2012

The ‘luck’ involved Fernando Alonso’s victory has been greatly exaggerated, but McLaren’s problems may have been misidentified…

Nothing Lucky About Fernando’s Win

Given that there is nothing lucky or unlucky about another car being unreliable in a race that is both a marathon and a sprint, the most fortunate aspect of Fernando Alonso’s victory wasn’t the retirement of Sebastian Vettel or Romain Grosjean. Nor was it McLaren’s latest pit-stop blunder or the deployment of the Safety Car. No, Fernando’s most fortunate moment was when Lewis Hamilton caught Kimi Raikkonen napping at the restart, in the process putting a substantial buffer between the Ferrari and the only driver who, ultimately, could have beaten the Spaniard. And probably should have done.

Underpinning that assertion is the presumption that Vettel’s engine did not overheat behind the Safety Car and would have blown a fuse even in an uninterrupted race. Given that Romain Grosjean was also forced into retirement with an identical alternator failure, and his Renault engine blew seven laps after the race was resumed, it seems a fair one to make.

As for McLaren’s calamity, it certainly offered Alonso a helping hand, but his vastly superior pace in the laps that preceded the Safety Car’s appearance had already made plain that he had the beating of Lewis regardless of any outside interference; McLaren merely gifted what he was bound to take sooner rather than later. Nor did McLaren’s blunder offer Alonso an advantage vis a vis Raikkonen because Hamilton’s stay in the pits was sufficiently tardy for the Lotus to jump him as well – hence why Lewis then lined up at the restart behind Raikkonen.

And thus occurred the pyrrhic pass of Hamilton – pyrrhic because, far from aiding his cause, it eventually proved to be the final decisive play in the victory of one of his World Championship rivals.

Again, there is an assumption to be made, namely that Raikkonen would have been quicker at the close of the race. But, again, it seems a legitimate one to make because the Lotus was faster than Ferrari throughout the weekend and had Raikkonen not been stuck behind Hamilton then he would have surely been able to capitalise when Alonso reported over his radio that his tyres were “finished” with eight laps remaining. Instead, Raikkonen took another four laps to round the faltering McLaren, by which point Alonso had extended his lead to eight seconds. Once in clear air, Raikkonen immediately reduced his arrears by two seconds, but by then Alonso was already crossing the line for his final lap with the race in the bag.

The only remaining question to be asked is whether it should be considered Alonso’s good luck or mere happenstance that Raikkonen wasn’t where he really ought to have been. The Finn made an error almost at the exact moment that Alonso was pulling off the move of the race. That was ultimately the difference; one driver making his way forward, another his undoing. What’s lucky about that?

Red Bull Might Be Pushing Too Hard
If Christian Horner really believes that the “statistics say Fernando has to have one bad weekend in twenty”, the Red Bull boss should look away now because the record books now declare that Alonso has scored points in each of the last twenty grands pix, finishing in the top five in all but two of those races. He’s a human metronome in a bullet-proof car.

The irony of Horner’s remarks is that they were made after a race when a feature of a bygone era returned to F1: unreliability. It has been astonishingly rare for F1 cars to break down in recent years, but on Sunday both Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean were denied probable victories by broken machinery.

That they both suffered an alternator failure on their Renault engine is an immediate mitigation to any criticism of Red Bull’s methods, but the problems Mark Webber suffered on Saturday, resulting in his exit from Q3, had already served to suggest the biggest threat to Red Bull is not from Alonso or McLaren, but themselves.

As uttered in our qualifying report, teething problems are inevitable when a raft of changes is made to finely-tuned machinery and the only surprise on Sunday in the wake of Red Bull reputedly changing 70% of the RB8 is that Vettel’s demise was caused by a broken engine rather than a malfunctioning part. After winning back-to-back Constructor and Drivers’ Championships, the success of the team’s make-it-and-use-it approach is self-evident and beyond serious reproach, but a passing thought on Sunday night is that the team have been spooked by this year’s competitiveness into trying too hard and pushing too far.

Reviewed in the wake of what followed, the reported ‘boast’ of by a team member on Thursday night that weekend’s upgraded car amounted to a “a d-spec not a d-spec” also spoke of a degree of desperation. So too, perhaps, Horner’s prediction that Alonso is due to a bad result. Red Bull are no longer having their own way and it is patently obvious that it’s making them uncomfortable.

No Time To Settle Down Yet
Yet it’s also surely the case that Red Bull’s Valencia pace will have made everyone else uncomfortable, too. Had Vergne’s moment of ineptitude not resulted in the Safety Car being deployed then Vettel was on course to rewind 2012 back to 2011’s dominance and even the two Lotuses, the second-fastest cars on show, were almost half a minute behind within 25 laps of the start.

The race is now on to copy the RB8’s updated floor which, in layman’s terms, feeds air to the underside of the diffuser. However, given that the team have effectively spent the last four months fine-tuning their complicated design, a facsimile may be easier to spell than produce.

That Lewis Hamilton repeatedly bemoaned the absence of any upgrades on the McLaren also spoke volumes, although what message he was sending out remains unclear: straightforward disgruntlement, a loss of faith in McLaren, or a hankering for a transfer to Red Bull? Whatever the answer, McLaren are expected to respond with a raft of changes on the MP4-27 in Silverstone. Partly to assuage their understandably-frustrated and yet-to recommit driver , but mainly to ward off the clear threat of a humiliating defeat to Red Bull on home soil, they will need too.

A botched pit-stop may have borne the brunt of the post-race opprobrium that poured McLaren’s way on Sunday night, but it was their car’s missing pace that really ought to have been the cause for annoyance and alarm. With every pass week in which Jenson Button is reduced to a midfield backmarker without remedy, the suspicion is reinforced that Hamilton is currently far exceeding his car’s capabilities in a way that only Alonso can understand.

It’s Maldonado Who Should Be Learning From Hamilton
How very strange, meanwhile, that Hamilton has been advised to change his ‘approach’ when driving against Pastor Maldonado when it was the Williams driver who was exclusively found guilty of wrongdoing by the stewards. It’s the South American who needs to change his