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Reflections on the 2010 F1 Finale

World Champions Hamilton, Vettel and Button on the podium at Abu Dhabi

Now that the dust has settled, and the champagne (or fizzy citrus substitute) has been popped, we can step back and look at what has been one of the least routine grand prix season in years.  We are currently in a heady era when, rather than seeing the world titles be dominated by one or two teams for years at a stretch, we have three or four teams, and several drivers, well in contention.  In the past six seasons, we’ve had only one repeat title winner, Fernando Alonso.  The Spaniard came close to winning a third title this year, but it was not to be.

The diversity and depth of field were highlighted on the podium at Abu Dhabi this past weekend.  The three podium spots were occupied by the three most recent world champions.  Much as fans used to tell themselves they were lucky to be living in an era when they could witness the brilliance of Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna at their peaks, fans may now say they’re fortunate to be able to see the likes of Vettel, Lewis, Button, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Rosberg and Schumacher (again) all vying for the title.

Admittedly, the Mercedes squad are the laggards in that bunch, but they might well be scrapping at the front again next year, and Rosberg is likely as quick as at least half of his aforementioned rivals, and Michael Schumacher, is, well, Michael Schumacher.

While I haven’t penciled out the math, I do think that the new points system contributed to the drama of this year’s title race.  For one thing, the gap between first and second was increased to seven points, which made results much more volatile.  A single win could catapult a driver in the standings, and make up for many previous sins.  Considering how well this season played out in that respect, one can only wonder at why the evil gnome Bernie Ecclestone continues to tout his ridiculous medals program.

As for this year’s final race, while on a pure racing level it was the worst sort of processional, virtually devoid of overtaking, it was, nevertheless, a fascinating spectacle simply because of the assortment of points-paying scenarios that might have played out.  At the beginning of the race, three drivers (Alonso, Vettel and Webber) stood a decent chance of walking away with tbe title, with a fourth (Hamilton) having an outside chance of becoming champ should the other three drivers all have the worst luck of their careers.

On paper, it looked as though Fernando Alonso stood the best chance of pulling it off.  He didn’t need to win, he only needed to finish well enough to preserve his eight popint lead.  With Vettel winning, he only needed to finish fourth or better – which he did not.   Why?  As it turns out, Ferrari decided to “cover” Mark Webber, who pitted early to change tires.  Webber was trailing Alonso, and it was thought that if he had fresh rubber, he might overtake the Spaniard.

Covering Webber proved to be a costly mistake. It wasn’t Webber who needed covering, it was Vettel.  (In maintaining a rigid non-team orders stance consistently, Red Bull really proved they were backing their favorite son.)  If Ferrari had waited to pit, Alonso likely wouldn’t have gotten mired behind some of the drivers who had pitted early during the safetey car period that resulted from the Schumacher-Liuzzi crash, e.g. Rosberg and Petrov.  In fact, if he’d held his position until later, he probably would have finished behind Jenson Button, in fourth.  He would’ve been a triple world champ.

But Formula 1 is full of would-haves.  Mark Webber is likely playing the same game in his own mind, thinking back to the costly mistakes he made during key points in this year’s championship.  Ditto, Lewis Hamilton.  Sebastian Vettel must have gone through the same kind of soul searching during the closing days of the season, but in the end he took a page from Kimi Raikkonen’s book, and just kept his head down, blotted out the background chatter, and did his own thing.

His team did what they could to keep him focused on the task at hand during the closing laps at Aby Dhabi.  Vettel wasn’t even aware that he was about the become the youngest-ever world champion.  His engineer simply counseled him to keep turning consistent laps, without mentioning what was at stake.  Vettel knew he was about to win the race, but he didn’t know he was about to snag the title as well.

After the race, the latest conspiracy theory that arose was that Red Bull had deliberately used Mark Webber as a decoy, to lure Alonso into pitting early.  While it does seem like the type of “soft” team orders that some teams employ, while continuing to maintain an anti-team-orders stance, the tactic does seem to be too clever by half.

While Red Bull certainly would have been happy to see either of their drivers win the championship, clearly they were ecstatic that the right driver one.  As McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh has pointed out, Red Bull’s heart beats for Vettel.  Vettel’s contract runs out at the end of next year, with an option for 2012, but already team management is talking about trying to tie him to a commitment until 2015.  They’re not making similar noises about Mark Webber, who this year signed a mere one-year contract extension.  The Aussie must be wondering what soft team orders will look like next year.

And what of Ferrari?  While the Maranello-based squad was dejected at the final outcome, having come very close to clinching the title, they are nevertheless happy to have a solid lead driver on board again.  After Michael Schumacher left the team at the end of 2006, the team seemed to flonder somewhat, Kimi Raikkonen’s 2007 title not withstanding. Neither Felipe Massa nor Raikknonen was a natural lead driver, either in terms of performance, or in terms of leadership skills.

A good lead driver (think Schmacher, Senna or Prost) will galvanize the energy of the team, and become the natural focal point of their efforts.  Alonso did this from day one when he joined the Scuderia.  So di Montezemolo, Domenicali, et al, are now looking forward to 2011 with optimism, convinced that the next world champion could be be wearing red livery – and speaking with a Spanish accent.

As for some of the other marquee names, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton once again proved that he’s quicker than his team mate, on balance, while the team mate, Jenson Button, proved yet again that he’s a very good driver, though not a great one.  A great driver flatters his car; a merely good driver has his weaknesses highlighted by a car that underperforms.

As for the fourth team of the so-called Big Four?  Mercedes showed that, if anything, they seemed to be racing more against the likes of Renault and Williams rather than the other big teams, Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull.  Nico Rosberg showed his mettle by outperforming his illustrious team mate on most occasions.  Meanwhile, Herr Schumacher, on the whole, caused people to doubt the wisdom of his comeback after a three-year layoff, even if he had been touted as the benchmark of the field just three or four years earlier.

While Schumi’s performance has been more consistently lately, the image of Tonio Liuzzi’s Force India lying atop Schumacher’s Mercedes at the chicane on Sunday seemed emblemaic of the way his season has gone in general.  He’s stated that he’s looking forward eagerly to 2011, and all things considered, who wouldn’t be?

As for the rest, we’ve seen Williams turn in a string of creditable performances this year, only to be rewarded with the loss of four of their major sponsors.  At beginning of this year, they continued with their program of grooming rookie Nico Hulkenberg as a serious F1 contender, only to dump him at year’s end in favor of a pay-to-pay pilot.

We’ve also seen Renault resurrected from the ashes of Crashgate, to compete for best-of-the rest status with Williams and Mercedes.  Robert Kubica has performed consistently in a way that flatters the car, and team management must be plotting at this moment a variety of ways to keep the Pole anchored to the team.  Of course, the team is Renualt in name only, for the most part.  They own only a 25% stake, the balance belonging to Luxeourg-based Genii Capital.  With talk of Renault pulling out of team operation entirely, we might see Renault rebranded as Genii in the near future.

While Force India started the year showing promise, they’ve drifted backwards as the year has progressed, showing how difficult it is for smaller teams to keep pace with the big boys in terms of development.  The sister Red Bull team, Toro Rosso, has maintained its role of backmarker, enjoying nothing like the performance it did when Sebastian Vettel was there, when he won his first race at Monza.

Then, there are the newbie teams, Virgin, Lotus and HRT.  These were Max Mosley’s brainchild, and on the whole thhey haven’t added much luster to the field.  Truly, their primary function has been to help make up the numbers.  In the meantime, Virgin has sold a majority stake to a Russian sponsor, Lotus will give up its license on the illustrious franchised name, and HRT has an uncertain future for a variety of reasons.

Next year will usher in yet another raft of changesto technical regulations, would should make Red Bull’s tech head Adrian Newey happy.  As he recently stated, whenever there a new tech regs, new opportunities are created to find a performance edge.  Different deisgners will take different approaches, and some of them will find advantages that others won’t.  Adrian Newey has built his career on exploiting such opportnities.  It’s only when regs become static that it becomes harder to find unexploited areas that might be further developed.  Once the discovery has been made, and proven, the rival teams will follow suit.

One can only hope that, reg changes or not, the 2011 season is as exciting as 2010 has been.

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