A fight to the finish

After two convincing wins for rookie Lewis Hamilton, it was now the turn of Ferrari and surprisingly Kimi Raikonnen to register back-to-back wins.

Surprising because Raikonnen had been outdone till then by the three other top contenders – team-mate Felipe Massa, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton – for the Drivers’ Championship. And the way Hamilton was shaping up, one would dare still consider him as just another rookie who’s had a great start to his career.

Raikonnen has now perhaps rightfully claimed his place as Ferrari’s contender for the Drivers’ title. Massa may just be a point behind, but he’s now suffering from luck deserting him at the crucial junctures, something maybe he shouldn’t have picked up from his more illustrious colleague.

For those who may have forgotten, this season has already witnessed three drivers having consecutive wins. Massa did it in Bahrain and Spain, Hamilton in the couple of GPs in North America, and now Raikonnen in the European countries separated by the English Channel.

It may also have to do a bit with the team momentum, which is crucial in the case of races on successive weekends. This season has 10 races packed in five fortnights over the season. McLaren did well at Montreal and Indy and Ferrari bounced back with Raikonnen’s wins at Magny-Cours and Silverstone. The latter dampened the homecoming party for local lad Hamilton, who still managed to maintain a place on the podium.

Raikonnen has won the most races this season, but would need to be far more consistent to push Hamilton for the title. We are halfway into the season and Hamilton still has a 12-point lead over Alonso and a 18-point advantage on Raikonnen. Now, assuming, Hamilton continues to be at least third on the podium for the rest of the season, he going to end up with a minimum of 118 points.

That means Alonso would need more than 60 points in nine races while Raikonnen would need 66. That’s an average of approximately 7 points per race. It’s not impossible though, since the 7 points is only needed if Hamilton continues this remarkable run. And if Hamilton doubles his points to 140 at the end of the season, it would in all probability be an exceptional second-half of the season for both Alonso and Raikonnen to pip him to the post.

If Ferrari focus on Raikonnen as their No.1, then he could benefit from the internal squabble between a champion wanting to retain his crown and a potential great who is aiming to fulfil something he’s been working towards and trained on for years. For those who say that the problems have been fixed, just clear out those corneas and watch the replays of the podium celebrations at Silverstone.

It’s definitely a fight to the finish.

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Indy’s here

Jacques Villeneuve’s comments about F-1 drivers continue while he’s not still on the racetrack. Or perhaps it was because a bored journalist felt the easiest way to get a story at Montreal was to talk to the big-mouthed Canadian. A few days after he lashed out at the aggressive driving of Lewis Hamilton – precisely his ‘chopping’ overtaking moves – the Brit answered with a flawless performance from qualifying till the chequered flag at Montreal, a circuit named after Jacques’ father Giles Villeneuve. Hamilton did not even need to overtake, he led the race from start to finish. Take that, Jacques.

But the image of that race had to be Robert Kubica’s crash. Fortunately, crashes like those – ones that take the breath out of any spectator watching – rarely happen in Formula-1 nowadays. Kubica was safe, and the team promptly decided to rest him for the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Germany’s Sebastian Vettel replaced him, and the teenager did well to qualify seventh at Indy, a track very similar to the one at Montreal. Hamilton literally grabbed pole, after trailing his team-mate Fernando Alonso in the first two periods of the qualifying session. The Ferraris were struggling, but still managed to park themselves on the second row for the race-start, with Massa ahead of Raikonnen.

Nick Heidfeld was fifth in the BMW, followed by Heikki Kovalainen in the Renault, a good performance from the rookie. Jarno Trulli, Mark Webber and Giancarlo Fisichella make up the back-end of the top ten. The Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello are once again outside the front 10, and at one point the Super Aguri of Anthony Davidson threatened to out-qualify them both.

Speaking of the Super Aguri, can one forget the moment that reminded us how sport can be a great leveller? A double world champion in the best car was overtaken by a driver in a car mostly sidelined to be happy amongst the backmarkers. Many a time, Takuma Sato would have had to give way to Fernando Alonso before the blue flags would start waving, but this time he got an opportunity to challenge the champion and was triumphant too.

Hoping that Indy can match up to the pulsating drama that was Montreal.

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Alonso leading by 4?

Five races down, and Lewis Hamilton still drives a fairytale of a first Formula-1 season. A race win has eluded him, but he’s not been far from it. Four consecutive second place finishes have helped him to the top of the points table alongside defending champion and team-mate Fernando Alonso. However, the rookie from the United Kingdom is currently placed behind the Spaniard, thanks to Alonso’s two race wins.

This brings us to an interesting debate, on whether Hamilton would have been on par with Alonso on points had he been competing under the old points scoring system. The new points system came into effect in 2003, in order to spur greater competition and rewarded eight drivers with points instead of the earlier system of six finishing in the points. Also, the points for the second and third placed drivers on the podium were changed, which cut down the 4-point cushion for a race winner over the second-placed opponent to a mere 2 points. The old system was as follows: the drivers finishing in the top six were awarded 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1 points respectively for that particular Grand Prix. The new system: 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the drivers placing 1-8.

Going by the old points system, Alonso would be on 32 points for the races held so far, 6 points less than the tally with the current points system. Lewis Hamilton would be worse hit, his points this season would drop from 38 to 28 if the old system was still in existence. Hence, if we were still in 2002, Alonso would have been going to Montreal with a 4-point lead over his team-mate.

One can go on about the merits of the old and the new system. The major difference being that earlier a race win was given more importance, since the driver placed in second scored 4 points less than the winner, who got 10. Nevertheless the current system has been well-accepted by all and perhaps is a better one.

Last season, there was a close contest between Alonso and the now-retired Michael Schumacher. I think you get what I intend to do: Check if Schumi could have won that title in the farewell season had the points system been different. Schumacher was second-best by a good 13 points in the end, but the title race was much closer before the tragic engine blowout at the penultimate race in Japan.

Current points system: Alonso 134, Schumi 121.
Old points system: Alonso 116, Schumi 104.

So, it wouldn’t have really made a difference. The duo were equal on points before the race in Japan, which Alonso won and Schumacher didn’t score a point in. Interestingly, had it been the old system, Schumacher would have led Alonso by a point heading into Japan. So, could that 1 point have crumbled Alonso’s march to the title. Perhaps not.

Those still interested read on. We shall look at another title-race involving Schumacher, though this time around it is back in 1997, when the old points system was in place. 1997 saw the infamous incident where Schumacher tried to take out championship winner Jacques Villeneuve in the final race of the season – the European Grand Prix. Schumacher was penalised; the authorities disqualified him from the final championship standings.

What follows is to check whether Schumacher would have benefited had the new points system been followed.

Old points system (Actual standings): Villeneuve 81 Schumacher 78.
New points system : Villeneuve 89 Schumacher 94.

Interesting? And the standings before the European Grand Prix is given below:

Old system: Villeneuve 77 Schumacher 78.
New system: Villeneuve 83 Schumacher 94.

Villeneuve did not even have a shot at winning the title. Schumacher could have well gone on driving his way to the championship. Although, in hindsight, that would have made for a rather blunt conclusion to the season. And the connoisseurs of sport would have been denied the opportunity the decry that instance of sporting impropriety.

The title race is in all probability likely to be tight this season. But at the back of our minds would be the fact that perhaps a different points scoring system could have made a world of difference.

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F-1: Monaco – The Inflection Point

A bizarre event. The man who replaced Michael Schumacher does an accidental replay of what the German ‘deliberately’ did a year ago. To top it, Kimi Raikonnen’s Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa nearly dislodged the Finn from the stationary position he had got comfortable in. Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a ‘Salute to Schumi’ from Ferrari at Formula 1’s glitziest Grand Prix.

Massa qualified third, while Raikonnen’s brush with the surreal pushed him back to 15th. Meanwhile, on the front row a two-time defending champion managed to pip the rookie who is seen capable enough by many to win the World Championship. A lot of talk going into this weekend was about the successes McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton has had at Monaco, albeit at lesser levels of motor sport.

However, teammate Fernando Alonso has once again out-qualified the Briton (a 4-1 record this season so far). But Hamilton will surely be looking to outdo the Spaniard at the start in Monaco. And a win at Monaco would definitely be one of the defining moments of world sport this year.

It is heartening to see that the BMWs have been pushed back to the fourth row, followed by the Hondas in Row 5. Giancarlo Fisichella in the Renault, Nico Rosberg in the Williams and Red Bull’s Mark Webber fill the slots 4-6. Hopefully, Monaco shall mark the inflection point for a few teams and their drivers.

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F1 Season 2007: Catch-22

A friend of mine and an F1 fan at it put it perfectly after yesterday’s race:
CATCH-22 SITUATION OF THE F1 SEASON 2007:
F Alonso 22 points
K Räikkönen 22 points
L Hamilton 22 points.

That’s how the standings look like at the end of the first three races. And yesterday’s winner – Ferrari’s Felipe Massa – is right behind the trio with 17 points in the bag. Interestingly, Massa is the only one out of the above mentioned drivers who raced with the same team last season. Hamilton obviously doesn’t count; he may have raced in McLarens before, but creating history in F1 is an altogether different ballgame.

Some may crib about the two-team tussle at the top, but I am surely not complaining. Other teams may catch up before the season moves to Europe in a month’s time – beginning with Catalunya. However, so far this has been perhaps one of the most exciting starts to a season, with two teams and both their drivers in contention for the top honours. Agreed, one may get a bit bored if the duopoly over podium places continues.

While the TV cameras catch the nail-biting action at the top of the grid, one cannot overlook the fact that the rest of the teams – especially the middle-rung ones – are struggling. BMW is the only exception, with Nick Heidfeld being the only driver outside the top two constructors to have have moved ahead of single digits in the points tally. His teammate Robert Kubica is catching up, scoring his first points of the season at Sakhir.

Similarly, last year’s champions Renault too are off the pace and their rookie Heikki Kovalainen has by no means had the same start to the season as Lewis Hamilton. The Williams and the Toyotas have not done anything special so far. And the less said about the Hondas, the better.

There’s a long wait for fans before the European leg of the season starts. But one thing’s for sure – it will take some catching up for the likes of Heikki Kovalainen and Jenson Button to share the podium with Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikonnen.

Malaysian GP: McLaren serves a warning

The 1-2 finish at the Malaysian GP would have come a boost to Ron Dennis and his team. The new drivers for the ‘silver and red’ outfit this season – Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton – have come good with podium finishes in the first two GPs of 2007.

Alonso’s great start to the season would have been expected. After all, his ability to consistently finish at the top is perhaps the reason why the team signed the two-time defending world champion. However, the team would be particularly pleased with Hamilton’s successes. The rookie has had a fabulous start to his F-1 career, and McLaren would be proud that a talented driver like him has come through the team’s driver development programme.

What is interesting to note is the consistency shown by the team so far this season. The team has surely put in good work during the winter testing to bring out a car that – even after two races – looks more convincing and reliable than those in the last few seasons.

Ferrari’s Kimi Raikonnen must be wondering why did he not have such a car during the 2005 season. Raikonnen, who was at McLaren then, lost out in the title race to Alonso in the Renault. Many believed that Raikonnen deserved the title for his sublime skills and speed, only to be done in by an underperforming car.

But do not rule out Ferrari and Raikonnen yet. Or even Felipe Massa for that matter. After all, Raikonnen was alongside Alonso and Hamilton on the podium at Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. Massa started on pole in Malaysia (refer ‘Massa takes pole‘.) The prancing horse may have been slightly (very slightly) inconsistent compared to their arch-rivals McLaren, but there’s still a long way to go before we can pass judgement on this season’s winners.

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Malaysian GP: Massa takes pole

For anyone who assumed that this season is going to be a two-way race, think again. Though the Constructors’ Championship looks for a certainty to be decided between McLaren and Ferrari, the Drivers’ equivalent is perhaps a three-way affair, between Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikonnen and Fernando Alonso. McLaren rookie Lewis Hamilton – fourth on the grid – may for sure find it tough to stake a claim in his first season, though unexpected things do happen in sport.

After the disappointment in qualifying at Melbourne, Massa bounced back to take pole this time around. Right on his tail are defending champion Alonso and his own team-mate Kimi Raikonnen. Massa, said later at the press conference, ” Yes, I’m quite happy. Unfortunately Melbourne didn’t end as I had hoped. It ended up that I started at the back but I’m not supposed to start completely last on the grid but here it looks just a little bit different, so I’m just looking forward to having a good race tomorrow.”

The disappointment of the day had to be Renault. Both Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovailainen stayed out of the top ten, a worrying sign for Team Principal Flavio Briatore. Renault don’t appear to have the car and the talent to take them close to title contention this time around. BMW’s Nick Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg in the Williams shored up the top six, with BMW’s Robert Kubica in seventh.

The Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher will start eighth and ninth, while Red Bull’s Mark Webber is at No. 10. But the action is surely at the top-end of the grid. Kimi Raikonnen’s suspect engine managed to make it through qualifying, but will it last the whole race? Also, will Alonso quietly sneak in a win today, upsetting the applecart of the Ferraris?

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