Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Singapore Grand Prix - Preview

Act III, Opening Scene - Downtown Singapore

All of a sudden we are down to just 6 races. We are reaching the end-game.

The globetrotting denouement to this fiercely contested and impossibly hard to call season will get underway in Singapore this weekend. In recent seasons this has normally heralded a run of horrifically dull, processional races (normally won by Red Bull). But joy of joys the Indian GP (should have worked but just didn’t) and the Korean GP (the all-time highlight being PSY waving the chequered flag in 2012 to put an end to all our misery) have been dropped from the F1 calendar. *High Five to Bernie* So goodbye Indian and Korean GPs, we barely knew you at all but I think we can all agree a conscious uncoupling is the best thing all round.

And this means we have a very eclectic, diverse and fascinating collection of races to see out the season. First off, its back to the Far East for the longest race (309km – that’s a whole lot of street) and one of the most gruelling races for drivers of the season. Cards on the table, I’ve never been much of a fan of this race. On paper, it sounds great. A night race around a visually stunning street circuit that by all accounts has an incredibly charged atmosphere. Its basically like watching Bladerunner with cars. No other race on the F1 calendar has that package so what’s not to love?

A scene from Bladerunner or the Singapore GP? Spookily alike!

Well its very difficult to overtake for starters meaning that other factors such as tyre/pitstop strategy and unreliability will have much more of a bearing on how the race unfolds. Interestingly, it has a 100% record of a Safety Car (normally a good indicator of a lively race, see Montreal) so it obviously has had its fair share of crashes and incidents, not surprisingly given the length of the race and constant braking around a tight, walled track.

It undoubtedly poses a unique set of challenges for the drivers but doesn’t tend to throw up any real surprises. Whisper it quietly (or hey just tell the FIA 1 Race Director like I did – ahem!!) it is quite a b-o-r-ing race. Which is generally won by Sebastian Vettel (for the last 3 years at any rate). Although ironically a Vettel win this year would probably mean its been an rollercoaster humdinger of a race as the likely Mercedes benefit gig would have not gone to plan. Mind you he’d have to see off Daniel Ricciardo first!

But this year I am quite hopeful. Firstly, the stand-out dominant car doesn’t not have a stand-out-running-away-with-the-championship driver (like the Vettel-Red Bull dream team of the last few seasons). There is the tantalising prospect of Hamilton and Rosberg racing each other like loons around a track where there is no margin for error. And we all know how that can play out.

And to add some further spice to proceedings in Singapore, there is also the new all-singing and all-dancing directive from the FIA banning teams from giving their driver coded messages over the radio or passing on any performance related information (including on pitboards). All the teams have been given a long list of banned messages and the teams, as is their wont when their lives are made a teeny bit more difficult, are quite vexed by the whole situation. So what’s on the Banned List? Quite a lot actually – sector time information, clutch maps and settings (so expect to see an interesting start to the Singapore GP as drivers have been used to a LOT of help in getting the car ready during the formation lap), fuel flow settings and fuel saving, engine settings, gearbox settings and brake balance settings (which could make a big difference at a brake-heavy track like Singapore). Pretty much all settings you can think of. Also teams can’t answer direct questions from drivers such as “what’s Nico’s sector time” or “at what corners is Lewis gaining time”. For example. Oh and from Japan it will get a whole lot harder as brake wear/temperatures and tyre pressures/temperatures will join the Banned List.

The thinking behind all of this from Charlie Whiting and FIA is to strip away the relentless ‘coaching’ that a team gives their driver throughout a race. Its fair to say the amount of help and instructions that drivers were getting over the radio was becoming a bit ridiculous. Stuff like “try using 5th gear into turn 4”. Really? And I had to laugh at the senior engineer who said people should be careful what they wish for - this is going to mean almost no radio traffic at all”. Honestly guys, on the whole your radio messages aren’t actually all that interesting. Back in the day, we hardly ever heard any radio messages and gasp, shock, horror we still had some stunningly exciting races. And bless the Sky team who literally saturate us (in a good way!) with non-stop analysis and post-race dissection of every key moment on the Sky Pad. We’re hardly going to be left in the dark as to what’s happening out on track, even if the drivers are!

The SkyPad in action. No stone left unturned etc!

From the perspective of my sofa, I’m quite looking forward to watching a race where drivers are less spoon-fed and their driving isn’t oh-so-carefully managed by their team during the race. They are all top-class drivers or they wouldn’t be in F1 so let them just race as much as is possible in modern day F1. This new directive is hardly going to rip up the F1 grid order and lead to a Caterham snatching a race win from Sauber next weekend but it should reward the instinctive, natural drivers and those who have a deep, intuitive feel for the handling of their cars and can relay that to their engineers. And that has to be a good thing in my opinion.

So after Monza, Lewis Hamilton trails Nico Rosberg by a mere 22 points. Not insignificant but the title lead is now less than a race win (for Lewis) and a DNF (for Nico) away. Both drivers have welcomed the FIA crackdown on radio messages as something that will enable their own superior talents to come more to the fore - psychological mind-games are well and truly in full force - but only time will tell who will benefit the most from a return to what Nico Rosberg calls ‘purer racing’. Pure racing hey? That could kickstart a whole other debate...!

Nuvolari - the purest of them all?

Or the incomparable Fangio?

Or Jim Clark, regarded by many at the most naturally gifted driver ever?

Or Senna, more at one with his car than any over driver?

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