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World Class Fernando

In one of the year’s most dramatic weekends of sport, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso emphasises his global stature

And so Fernando has won another.  Those of us who predicted he would win the 2012 World Drivers’ Championship, even as the F2012 was furrowing brows and giving early-season pace away to the McLarens, Red Bulls, Lotus-Renaults and Mercedes, are in no way surprised.  Ferrari were always going to regroup; and there’s no-one better than Fernando when it comes to maximizing the good qualities of a car, minimizing its bad ones and stringing together a race weekend.  Spin on Fridays, win on Sundays.   The wonder, looking back, is that anyone didn’t think that a tight year like this would go Fernando’s way.

Hockenheim was standard Fernando fare:  changeable conditions and rain (defying the highly-rated weather forecasters) on Friday and Saturday afternoon.   No problem.   Push the car hard on both inters and wets, find the grip wide of the conventional racing line, stay quiet, smile the smile, wear the shades and take the pole – take two poles, as it happened, because his last two laps were good enough for P1.  Said timing was perfect, too:  quickest of all before the rain fell on Saturday morning, Fernando in the afternoon took advantage of the tracks left by other cars, the more so as time wore on.  He was out there, hunting for a lap, even as the chequered flag was unfurling.

The blue skies of a sparkling Sunday brought new tests.  Remember the dry-weather pace of Saturday morning.  Win the start.  Pull out a DRS-free lead.  Manage the tyres.  Manage the back-markers!

He did all of that.  In perhaps the truest test we’ve had yet of  the F2012’s current status, he was able to handle all aspects of Seb Vettel’s Red Bull (with margin to spare).  He could even enjoy a nice little cameo, courtesy of his old mate, Lewis Hamilton.  Delayed by an early-lap puncture, Lewis rejoined just behind Fernando and Seb on the road (but a lap down in reality) before proceeding to show his pace, using DRS to pass Seb without issue into the hairpin.  Incensed, Seb half-heartedly fought back, confused, I think, about whether he was “racing” Lewis or letting him go;  that is what his waved arms seemed to suggest, at any rate.   Fernando, in front, could only smile inwardly as his gap to Seb began to grow.  (It was difficult to see what Seb’s problem was:  if a guy like Lewis Hamilton isn’t allowed to unlap himself and race to the flag, then what was the 1967 Italian GP all about?)*

It was when Jenson Button jumped Vettel in the second pit stop (in part thanks to the time Seb had spent faffing around with Lewis, in part to McLaren’s amazing 2.3sec tyre change) that Fernando’s job description changed.   Suddenly he had a silver car in his mirrors, all over him, potentially butting into his DRS zone.

Suddenly Fernando, the great Manager of Races, had to become a Racing Driver, pure and simple.  Pit stop strategies had been played out. Radio messages from the pit wall about KERS or diff settings became superfluous, mere smokescreens.  Somewhere, somehow, he needed to dig deep, to find an advantage.

It came on the only sections of Hockenheim  worthy of the description “decent corners”: the last two right-handers of the lap and then Turn One – the quick right-hander followed by a shortish straight.  If Fernando could be perfect here for lap after closing lap then maybe he could generate enough space to protect himself from DRS detection out of the hairpin.  The McLaren would be better in and out of the slow stuff on the other parts of the lap;  no question about that.  The Ferrari is still no MP4-27 or RB7 – not when it comes to grip vs balance vs traction.   On the quicker corners, though, Fernando could impart some magic.

And so it began.

Avoid the mirrors out of the second hairpin and into the third one.  Use all the road and  perhaps a fraction more.  And then settle into those last two right-handers.  Run a little wide in the middle if necessary.  Fernando could manipulate the weight transfer, there, between the two corners, with a subtle nudge to create torque twist.   Minimise load for a clean run out of the last corner.  Into Turn One: again create that weight shift with an early turn-in, thus minimizing the amount of steering required mid-corner and leaving him free to adjust brake and throttle according to bumps, or the exit kerbs.  Behind, Jenson would be doing what he always does superbly well – turning in late, line-locking the McLaren into a soft apex/early power application zone, hitting a high minimum speed – but then paying a penalty with more load on exit.  The Ferrari, “lighter” from mid-corner to exit, would gain advantage as Fernando straightened out.   In freeze-frame it was all too clear:  Fernando was turning-in to One perhaps three kerb stripes earlier than Jenson’s McLaren.

Fernando’s replication was thereafter breathtaking.  Small errors were adjusted with such delicacy that they became “events” rather than mistakes; they made no dents in the sector times.   He looked from the outside to be “silky-smooth”;  his combined hand- and footwork made it so – but there was no excess there, no edge.  All of the movement was exactly apportioned;  all of it happened in anticipation of what would next unfold.  To the outside world, the Ferrari was a slot car.

He would try to be 0.6 – 0.7sec ahead before that DRS detection point.  He could feel the gap in his bones.  And there was traffic!  There were the red cars – the Marussias – and then some others.  Wait, wait, DRS them – and then time the pass  in an attempt to delay Jenson.  Not easy, but another lap gone.

Jenson was often there as they hit the brakes.  Fernando was obliged to run centre-right into the second hairpin.  Ease out of the brakes, apply initial steering, delay slightly, feel the grip, apply the substance of the lock – then accelerate hard but without jink.  No way Jenson would try him out on the outside into the next right.  No-one tries that outside stuff with Fernando…

He held that gap for two laps and then three – for three and then five.  And then an unexpected thing happened.  More and more, as the race wound down, Fernando could pick up a couple of tenths through those last three corners.  Jenson’s tyres were beginning to fade, just as Lewis’s had in Valencia.  Seb Vettel began to distract Jenson.  Fernando could once again breathe.

Fernando dipped down to the pit wall as the flag waved.  Three wins – and this one had come after a clear straight shoot-out with Red Bull and McLaren.  He’d taken the pole and he’d won the race.  Thankyou.  Thankyou.

It was good to see Jenson and McLaren back up there, for all that.  This is his sort of circuit – nice and sheltered, some dinky slow corners, none of those Valencia-style ch-of-ds that can be so tedious – and the McLaren, dressed in new side pods, in both the dry and on intermediates (but not wets, oddly), always competitive.  Seb Vettel, by contrast, was unable to do anything about Fernando in the early laps (despite those who predicted RBR walkaway domination after Valencia) or about JB until right at the end, when the McLaren’s Pirellis finally faded.  Seb’s driving looked strangely ragged this day, in front of his home crowd  (and Mark Webber, penalized by a gearbox change, was also surprisingly low-key).  Jenson protected the inside after being DRS’d but Seb passed him on the outside-exit of the hairpin, up on the kerbs. Seb argued that he would have run into the back of the McLaren if he hadn’t darted to the outside kerb but the key thing here, in judging whether or not this was an illegal drag race, is the phrase in article 20.2 of the Sporting Regs which says, “a driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.”   I suspect that the stewards (who included Derek Warwick) would have asked Herr Vettel:  “Ah.  And you couldn’t have just backed off….?”

Kimi Raikkonen had one of his better days of the year so far, racing aggressively in the early stages to finish a convincing fourth for Lotus-Renault (if there is such a thing as a “convincing fourth”; the P3 Kimi inherited thanks to Seb’s penalty actually makes much better reading); and both Sauber drivers – Kamui particularly – drove well to finish fourth (ahead of Seb on penalty time) and sixth, beating Michael Schumacher’s three-stop, P3-starting Mercedes in the process.  Nico Hulkenberg also looked very good for Sahara Force India, particularly in wet qualifying, but faded in the dry eventually to finish ninth; and Scuderia Toro Rosso  had their best race in a long while.  In the context of 2012 that doesn’t say much but full credit is due to Franz Tost and the boys nonetheless for making solid progress.  The Caterhams, too, were tantalizingly close to the mid-field, their recent updates clearly buying them some ground.

One race to go, then, before the summer break – and still Fernando sets the gold standard.  On a weekend when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France; when Hashim Amla, in an astonishing example of self-control for spiritual reasons drank no fluids nor consumed food whilst scoring 311 not out for South Africa at a sun-baked Oval in London;  and when another great South African, Ernie Els, won The Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes, Fernando in Germany was able to stand right up there with the best of them.  F1 has its own, very brilliant, Class Act.

*At Monza, in 1967, Jim Clark famously unlapped himself after an early-race pit stop.  He then drove flat out in his Lotus 49, re-taking the lead of the Italian GP in the closing stages.  Jim ran short of fuel on the last lap, handing victory to John Surtees, but the die for posterity had been cast.

             

              

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18 thoughts on “World Class Fernando

  1. Brilliant summation of a great sporting day. Well done to all the winners. Hashim big respect. Thanks for a brilliant article. Pg

  2. Many thanks. So much brilliant stuff going on this weekend I just had to try to release some energy on the keyboard!

  3. Paul Duncan on said:

    Great summary. Captured my thoughts about this so consistent and special driver perfectly. He really has it all.

  4. Many thanks.

  5. Paul Duncan on said:

    Peter,
    Do you think the Ferrari will remain competitive enough for Fernando to win the WDC? He seems to have the luxury that his team-mate does not take many points from him, but I never think that the Ferrari is the strongest car. He is better than the car at present. I would love to see him paired with a stronger team-mate as I think he is at his peak right now and it would be very interesting to see him against Lewis or Sebastian on equal terms.
    Paul.

  6. Fantastic post Peter, really well written.

    Fernando has really been a master this year. On my count he has made just one mistake, which was spinning the car back in Q2 Australia. He’s been perfect ever since, consistently.

    Look at what he did in the second half of 2010. If anything like that is to repeat (with the F2012 right now looking like a similar package to the F10) Fernando will sail to the drivers championship.

    With both the Red Bull drivers fighting amongst each other as much as with Fernando, I think betting on anyone but him for the title is well earnt money down the drain.

  7. Tony on said:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Peter. Beautiful summation.

    I watched the race today with my son and told him that being able to watch Alonso drive & win today was like being able to watch Michael Jordon do what he was born to do. All this amazing talent in F1 right now (drivers & teams), with these rules, is making for the best season I’ve ever seen in F1!

    One question for you, Peter: Who should be Alonso’s teammate next year?

    Take care,

    Tony

  8. Brilliant, but I would suggest that Fernando had a little more in hand and used only what was necessary to win and not let on to the opposition the full potential of the F2012. Keep up the great work.
    ja.

  9. Diane Cullimore on said:

    Great to see Ferrari up there again.Your piece is full of enthusiasm Peter.Wonderful to hear how much you are enjoying F1.Jack will soon be enjoying it with you.I would be very interested to see how another top driver in the second car would compare to Fernando,no disrespect to Filipe or Fernando,he’s doing a fantastic job.

  10. Hi Peter!
    Nice review of one truly breath taking GP!
    Politics aside ;), I believe his car allowed Alonso the priviledge to perform in a class of his own just as you pointed out by brilliantly managing his opponents’ attacks.
    Early in the race when Vettel found the pace after battling with Schumacher, I realized that because of the race setup it won’t be a real single chance to pass Fernando because of RBR’s top speed with DRS activated which topped at only 308 Kph at the end of the straight (according to live on screen graphics) while the Ferrari was at 304 Kph without the DRS! (I think the Ferrari as well as the McLaren topped at 316 Kph with DRS on!).
    But the most surprising for me was Fernando’s penultimate lap time which was his best in race while Vettel’s best lap on the last lap was half a second slower, which showed just how much reserve the Ferrari still had in it.
    On the other hand I need to say it was an impressive anticipation from you to actually set Alonso as a potential winner of 2012 WDC (I was thinking of Lewis and now I realize it would be rather difficult but not impossible).
    Yet I consider open for debate the level of inconsistency in marshals’ decisions in this years’ races: Maldonado did an off track excursion with a terrible outcome for another driver (HAM) because he got stuck on the kerbs and lost steering (according to his own defence) and consequently gets 20 seconds added to his time (for causing a collision), while the same penalty was “granted” for Vettel’s cautious approach in the hair pin pass on Button consisting of a reflex move to the left under earlier full throttle than his opponent (same as Kimi did towards the right side when he passed Schumi to avoid any mishappening normal in a wheel to wheel combat when the driver passing is prepared to avoid any sliding from the other one… like MAL slid onto PER last race for exemple just as Button’s back of the car slid when accellerating aside Vettel)…
    Also just before turning in the hair pin Vettel was a bit in front of Button but he conceded enough room to allow Button’s late breaking yet there were no consideration given to the fact that Button defended the straight line on the right side of the track to its limit and after the hair pin where he started to turn after Vettel already have turned Button took the entire track to the left side not leaving as the regulations stipulate a car width! I was puzzled about your suggestion of Derek’s question about Vettel’s option to lift off because it applies specifically to Button’s end of the straight attack on the hair pin to which Vettel correctly responded by choosing a wider (and thus longer trajectory) to avoid contact…
    Maybe I am biased in my approach because I would have did the same as Sebastian did, just as I would have did in Lewis’s situation of Rosberg overtaking in Bahrein (in Lewis’s case would have applied the same principle of lift off, especially since Rosberg’s move to the right started before Lewis’s attempt according to marshals). Yet Hamilton got no 20 seconds added to his time (or drive through as it was in the middle of the race), so isn’t it inconsistent for the same event to have or not a penalty?
    In the end the decision only affected Vettel, Kimi and … Alonso because in the end they will probably end up closely together at the end of 2012, and if Kimi or Alonso win the WDC by just 1 or 2 points it would be a shame…
    Best Regards

  11. Hazem on said:

    What a great race summary Peter!! Moreover, hearing Alonso telling the pit wall to calm down with 6 laps to go, adds more to his talent and magic feel if the cars back were causing any real threat or not. Also, Vettel had numerous off track mistakes (apart from JB overtake) most of his fans said he was driving on the limit, but for me, when things aren’t going the way he wants, you start to see his real talent, i don’t really get why he didn’t back off his JB overtake to the next lap?!

  12. David Nicol on said:

    @ Chris – Rosberg/Hamilton. Hamilton didn’t overtake Rosberg until he was back on track.
    Anyway,@ Peter, what an excellent piece. Your knowledge of the technical is quite impressive. I thought I knew a lot about driving techniques, but you bring up new (to me) terms that I’m going to have to look up on the inter web.
    Keep up the good work.
    David

  13. joac21 on said:

    Great Article! What do you mean by “torque twist” ?

  14. An interesting GP this was, but I’d still prefer the old Hockenheim, pre-Tilke; this lumped together version just doesn’t move me. Feels like it’s Sepang with the wrong main gradstand section: either keep the circuit in its original form or build a new one.

    Anyway, I think this was the case of Alonso “feeling good” again, sort of back to his 2003-2006 form. Still, he used to make mistakes even then: Monaco 2004 or Canada 2005, it’s bound to happen again this year. A couple of bad races and guys who are right behind him will be equal with FA on points. Raikkonen is/was never happy with just top 10 or podium results, the guy wants wins and Enstone’s the right place to produce race winning machinery. Would be nice if Webber won the title, a popular fella. I’ll keep cheering for Webbo.

    CRT F1 teams are still nowhere, very odd. Big bucks spent there with very little effect. Sauber, Jordan or Stewart did a lot better in their early years. BAR’s 1st season wasn’t great but then they managed to get back on track. Gotta be something CRT folks are doing wrong: plenty of social media, glorious motorhomes and VIPs, zero points. Not good.

  15. Tom Culligan on said:

    Fantastic article Peter! You certainly have a way with articulating all of the nuances of the race. Your passion for racing flows through those fingers and onto that keyboard in a masterful way.

    I’ve been a fan of Fernando for several years now and this season has been a treat to watch. He certainly is at his peak right now and its apparent at every race weekend. I hope your right about him winning the WDC this year. He definitely deserves it the way he man-handled that car in the beginning of the season and how he’s worked with the engineers to make the Ferrari the contender that it is now. He really is an all around great driver! And this truly is a spectacular season for F1!

  16. Many thanks – It’s quite complicated to put into writing: I’ll try to address it on this week’s The Flying Lap (Wed, 7:00pm UK).

  17. Many thanks – long way to go yet but Fernando is definitely in good shape.

  18. Pingback: Fantastic Fernando

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