RaceRip: F1 Australian GP 2016

This past weekend’s Australian Grand Prix delivered just about everything it could be expected to. Surprises, talk of safety, great midfield battles, a failed qualifying “innovation,” and the debut of an American team were all on tap. Indeed, the Australian GP has carried on the pre-season tones that will likely define the 2016 world championship.

One cannot begin this discussion without first touching on Fernando Alonso’s massive shunt on Lap 18. When I first saw the “wreckage” (if it even amounted to that), I did not think that could possibly be the car. My first thought was with Fernando, and hoping he was okay. Once we all saw him emerge from the car, my next thought was, “Oh lord, here comes all the discussion about the closed cockpit.” I am grateful for Jenson Button’s post-race comments about the use of the “halo.” While I favor a truly closed cockpit, it is important that we not let the “success” of F1’s safety technology in this crash overshadow the need to prevent future tragedies. Given the angle that the McLaren took after the collision with Gutierrez’s car, Fernando could very easily have hit his head on a catch fence post (a la Dan Wheldon). While it is welcome that he did not, we need to not allow miracles to be an excuse for sidestepping safety in the name of tradition.

The crash was a strange one to watch develop. Gutierrez had been reporting problems with his Ferrari power unit, so that would explain why Alonso caught up with him so quickly or unexpectedly. It would be hard for me to believe a driver of Fernando Alonso’s caliber could make that kind of mistake. The other unfortunate part of the shunt is that it happened to teams that really need time on track. The McLaren-Honda looks much improved this year. Even though Button finished down a lap in the other McLaren, Honda have obviously improved their power unit quite a bit over the off-season. Still, Honda and the rookie Haas team could really just use more on-track data at this point.

Aside from the Alonso/Gutierrez shunt, the race was memorable for both its start and its conclusion. The qualifying session was a borderline joke with the “new” format. While fans may agree with Bernie Eccelstone’s desire to not see Mercedes dominate the championship again this season, it is disturbing to see the lengths Eccelstone and other in F1’s “strategy” group are willing to go to prevent that, as well as how fundamentally flawed their approaches have been so far. Whoever thought that the “timing” portion of qualifying was somehow going to catch Mercedes out was clearly not thinking clearly. Instead, Haas  and several drivers were severely penalized for doing nothing wrong, while Mercedes still ended up on the front row.

To me, this whole thing started with freezing engine development after the 2005 season. Someone took a look at team budgets and realized the majority of team resources were going to engine development. So engine development was frozen to cut costs. Something was fatally missed here: Telling teams that have $400m budgets they cannot spend money on something does nothing to prevent them from spending it on something else. This kind of thinking, which will be covered in a later essay, has grown to a toxic level in F1. Consequently, the part of this weekend’s race that I enjoyed most was the start. Despite everything the Eccelstone cartel has done to “improve” the on-track product (the magnesium boxes that make the sparks, DRS, etc.) Vettal zoomed past both Mercedes and into a commanding lead. Some may argue the newly mandated “single clutch” made that possible. However, in the following laps, the Silver Arrow cars did not blitz Vettal, who showed he had the pace in the Ferrari to stay in the lead.

However, the Scuderia’s day went downhill quickly after the Alonso incident. Ferrari sent their cars out on the supersoft tires whereas everyone else had changed to the harder mediums. But for that poor strategy call and a problem with Vettal’s left front tire when he pitted on Lap 36, Vettal could easily have ended up second or first in the GP. It appears Hamilton wasn’t kidding when he said he thought Ferrari had something serious to offer this season. Vettal’s teammate Raikkonen also had a bad day at the office. He came into the pits on Lap 22 and had fire billowing out of his air intake. Not a great finish for Ferrari, but the pace was definitely there.

Lastly, a kind note about Haas. Despite the problems with Gutierrez’s car, Grosjean brought the other Haas home in P6. For those who remember when the three “new” teams came into F1 in 2010, the new cars were more like rolling chicanes. Haas’ nearly unbelievable performance in Australia demonstrates the important of having a strong technical knowledge base when entering the F1 arena. The funding from Gene Haas and the close technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari likely have a lot to do with the team’s early success. Having said that, the Haas approach of waiting a year, securing the services of a team principal like Gunther Steiner who has years of experience on an F1 pit wall, and the general racing knowledge the Haas organization has gleaned from its time competing in NASCAR may prove to be an example for future F1 teams to follow.

RaceRip: MotoGP Qatar GP 2016

In my season preview article, I noted that this was going to be a MotoGP season full of unknowns. The usually consistent “premier class” saw a number of rules and equipment changes over the off-season. The first round in Qatar answered a lot of those questions, and not the way I was expecting them to. We saw several glimmers of the gems that may yet emerge from the 2016 MotoGP season, as well as a couple things that raised eyebrows.

The most notable of these surprises is the life of the new Michelin tires. Reviewing statistics from the 2015 season, 14 out of 18 fast laps came on Laps 2 through 5. At Qatar, Lorenzo was setting fast laps all the way to Lap 20 or 22. We know Michelin has been a big proponent of direct return on investment with its racing participation. That said, I do not believe many saw such a dramatic coming. We will need to wait and see how the next few grands prix play out. However, if this becomes a norm in MotoGP, it will be interesting to see how aggressive teams and riders become on tire choice, and how much it changes race strategy. It could also make grands prix boring if no one begins to lose pace as a race goes on. On the other hand, if two or more riders are locked in a battle, they may not need to worry about tire wear. The larger 17-inch rims and did not appear to hurt the visual aspect of the on-track product the way some had feared, The close racing at the front made the grand prix very entertaining to watch, regardless if the riders were carrying 62-degrees of lean angle or 64-degrees.

Another takeaway from the race was the performance of the factory Ducatis. Despite Iannone crashing out on Lap 5, Dovizioso finished second. Moreover, both Ducatis showed they had the pace to stay with the Yamahas. Where the Ducati appeared to gain its advantage was on the Losail Circuit’s long front straight. Ducatis have never been short on top-end power in MotoGP. The problem has usually been getting that power to the ground early on corner exit. That is where Stoner’s unique riding style could do things all other Ducati factory riders had not been able to. This is where innovations like Yamaha’s cross-plane crankshaft come into play. Even with the simplified electronics, it appears Ducati engineers have found a way to address their age-old problem. MotoGP’s next stop is Argentina, before making their way to the United States’ Circuit of the Americas. We will have to wait and see how much of an advantage the Ducatis can gain on both of those circuits’ long backstraights.

Not surprisingly, off-season favorite and 2015 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo took a convincing victory. Lorenzo’s strong and consistent pace throughout winter testing easily made him the favorite for the Qatar race. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s nine-time World Champion teammate Valentino Rossi came home in fourth. While having some technical problems with his Yamaha R1, Rossi never appeared to be a threat to Lorenzo, and had a hard time staying with Marc Marquez  after Marquez passed him on Lap 3. We do not have a big enough sample size to determine how much of a threat Rossi will be this year. With his future at Yamaha secured with a two-year contract extension, Rossi can ride off into the sunset on the brand that brought him four of his seven MotoGP titles. It will be interesting to watch this season unfold and see if Rossi can stay with Lorenzo and the Ducatis at more technical tracks like Assen or Misano.

Race Rip: WSBK Thailand 2016

Until the last few laps of Race 2, I was going to start this report by saying that the on-track action at the Chang International Circuit had been overshadowed by the track conditions. The slippery surface that had riders regularly running off the track at several corners was detracting from the on-track product. Then the last 5 laps happened. Then we saw a real scrap between the Kawasaki powerhouse teammates Johnny Rea and Tom Sykes. The two Team Green riders put on a epic display of speed, cunning, and true grit as they jockeyed for the lead. The slippery asphalt raised the stakes, making the scrap even more impressive to watch. While Tom Sykes got the victory, despite his previous problems maintaining rear tire grip over a full race distance. But this was no ordinary victory; it was more than a win. After having won a world championship and having narrowly missed out on two more, Johnny Rea turned Tom Sykes’ world upside down last year. Rea’s dominant championship-winning year left many wondering how good Skyes really was. Despite losing Race 1 to Rea, Sykes boldly answered back in Race 2. While last year Rea was the clear number one rider at the Kawasaki team, Sykes has now proven he indeed has the talent and confidence to beat Rea head to head. However, Sykes’ performance at Phillip Island two weeks ago was not nearly as spectacular. Despite taking the pole in Australia, Sykes finished P5 and P6 in Race 1 and Race 2, respectively. The next track on the WSBK calendar, Motorland Aragon, is a fast but technical track. It will be interesting to see how both riders perform there.

While the epic battle between Sykes and Rea made the headline in the end, the track conditions at the Chang International Circuit were less than ideal. Riders were seen having to sit their machines up mid-corner in several areas of the track. Most perturbing among them was  Turn 3, the right-hander at the end of the track’s longest straightaway. Although ample, paved run-off room was available to the riders, having to suddenly change one’s line can make for hazardous on-track conditions. The slip-and-slide asphalt detracted from the races, as riders who were otherwise performing well were penalized by poor pavement rather than poor riding. While the conditions were not egregious, one would expect them to be addressed before next year’s event in Thailand.

Another notable performance was that of Dutchman Michael van der Mark. Riding for the Dutch-owned Ten Kate Honda team and teammate to American Nicky Hayden, van der Mark has shown astoundingly fast cornerspeed and scrappy racecraft in the first two rounds of the WSBK season. The 2014 World Supersport Champion and weekend pole winner, van der Mark has shown both speed and consistency this season. He has usually been able to get solid starts off the line, and has been able to maintain solid track position to the end of a race. Having podiumed three times in his rookie WSBK season in 2015, look to van der Mark to continue to develop both his speed and his racecraft as the season progresses. The Dutch round of the championship at Assen is the series’ next stop after Aragon. Two of van der Mark’s three podiums in 2015 were at the Dutch circuit. Johnny Rea also always seemed to do well at Assen when he was riding the Ten Kate Honda. We could be in store for something very special if van der Mark could pull off a home soil win in motorcycle-crazy Holland.

For American fans, Nicky Hayden had an up-and-down weekend. While Hayden DNF’d in Race 1 (by no fault of his own), Hayden came back from the technical problem to place in the top 5 in Race 2. While it appears Nicky is still getting used to the World Superbike package, look for Hayden to become even more competitive as the season progresses. Of note, Hayden has performed much better in both Race 2’s than in Race 1’s. If that trend continues at Aragon, it will be apparent Hayden just needs a little more time to get used to the WSBK brakes, tires, and chassis before he’s right up at the front with the Kawasakis. Another American favorite, long-time AMA road racer and 2008 Daytona 200 Champion Chaz Davies has performed very well this season. Riding one of the two factory Ducati’s, Davies has placed in the top 5 three times, and has been on the podium twice. If Davies had not crashed out of Race 2 at Phillip Island on the last lap (where he still managed to finish 10th), Davies would be right near the top of the championship standings. Davies has historically done well at Aragon, so it will be an opportunity for him to get right back in the fight for the title.

Race Rip: F1 Monaco 2014

As I watched the podium “ceremony” in Monaco, I became very confused. I checked my phone and my computer and confirmed that it was indeed Sunday morning and I was not watching a weekday soap opera. The similarities between a soap and the Mercedes duo’s antics on the podium do create a lot of press, but also tarnish the professional image of Formula 1. Drivers have always been extremely competitive people, and we should do nothing to diminish or quash that unique aspect of the sport. But in addition to a code of conduct on the track (rules about passing, etc.) there has always been a code of conduct in the paddock. Professionalism is supposed to demonstrate a competitor’s ability to accept, tolerate, and compete within a set of rules. Additionally, racing (especially F1) isn’t cheap, and professional athletes are expected to act like professionals in their roles as role models and spokespersons. There is an exception for what happens on the track. For example, I don’t look dimly on Ed Carpenter’s immediate reaction to getting taken out by James Hinchcliffe in the Indy 500. While referencing a serious injury like a concussion may have been less than graceful, a competitor never wants to be taken out of the game and Carpenter’s frustration was understandable and real.

But back across the pond in Monaco, how did Nico wrong Lewis by competing fairly and beating him? Similarly, what did Lewis do wrong by beating Nico for four GP in a row? The answer to both questions is absolutely nothing. When people act like they have been wronged when in fact no wrong has occurred, they’re not being competitive: they’re bitching. They’re whining. They’re acting like children, and we as fans should not tolerate it. Everywhere you go in life, you will undoubtedly find someone who is better than you at something. Even the best aren’t number one in everything. Nico’s frustration at how things were going when Lewis was beating him regularly was completely understandable. However, frustration is a personal feeling and does not mean showing ill will or disregard for a fellow competitor’s achievements. Nico, however, does not have Lewis’ track record of sulking and whining. I’ve been a Lewis Hamilton fan from the time he entered the Formula 1 world in 2007. That was the first season I began watching F1. Lewis got his first win on my birthday at the track closest to my house. As someone whose native field is politics, I cheered for a person of color to win in a sport that has historically been rather white-washed. However, my favouritism of Lewis has wained over the years. Sure, he had a rough entrance into F1 with Alonso that may have set him up for this. But Lewis’ behavior has demonstrated a pattern of narcissism and now borderline paranoia that will make him a handful for any team he races for. I’ll never forget watching the interview with Lewis and Heikki Kovalainen in 2009. Lewis was sitting there like a hawk listening to each and every word Kovalainen uttered. When the McLaren chassis proved to be subpar in 2009, Lewis started demanding a new car be designed mid-season. For several years at McLaren, Lewis couldn’t find an opening-lap crash he didn’t like and easily became frustrated with the team. And now Lewis is acting exactly like Alonso acted with him in 2007. It appears that what Lewis has tried so hard to avoid (his experience with Alonso in 2007) has actually turned him into the very thing he is trying not to be.

I should have spent this article writing about racing, like Marussia scoring a point, the challenges of Monaco, and the passing we saw this year is unusual places. But what is remembered best is often remembered last. In this case, the immaturity after the race will cast a dark cloud over the entirety of this year’s event. Much like the Hungarian GP in 2007, Monaco will be a GP that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Race Rip: MotoGP Le Mans 2014

Okay, so this is a week late. Better late than never.

Sometimes I think Marc Marquez is kind of like the Joker: He’s so good that he toys with us fans because he can. In two of the last three grands prix Marquez has made terrible starts only to knife his way through the field and storm to yet another commanding victory. Whether Marquez made genuine errors at the start of each GP or Carmelo Ezpeleta whispered in his ear to not risk making World Superbike look even better, Marquez remains the enigma that is driving MotoGP. Much like 2002 when Rossi was serving up dominance while Edwards and Bayliss were dueling it out, MotoGP runs the risk of fans losing interest because races are nearly pre-determined. Additionally, Marquez lacks the charisma that Rossi delivered to MotoGP. While his talent is beyond question, professional athletes are nevertheless entertainers, or at best, personalities. It’s not Marquez’s fault he can come across as a mild Kimi Raikkonen. It does not mean there is anything wrong with him or that he is doing anything wrong. But fans like people who make them smile and laugh, and Rossi has spoiled fans rotten for the last 15 years. Marquez is also from Spain, which is already moto-crazy and is therefore not delivering new fans to the sport. Nevertheless, the French GP was another Marquez showcase. So while Marque is driving MotoGP, he could be driving it into the ground. The racing in World Superbike has been compelling and close with multiple brands and riders capable of winning any given race. MotoGP needs to up its game rather than continue to punish World Superbike for clearly outperforming it.

Outside of Marquez’s exemplary performance, Rossi showed again that he still has the touch. Body position apologists across the road racing world must be rejoicing at seeing Rossi’s stark improvement from last year simply by hanging off the bike more. Moreover, the team’s number one rider Jorge Lorenzo was down in sixth. Looks like the Doctor found the cure to his own ailment. Also down the order was Dani Pedrosa, who finished in fifth behind the satellite Honda of Alvaro Bautista. While Vale was probably happy he had Marc standing in between him and Bautista on the podium, Bautista’s podium on a satellite bike shows that when he doesn’t submarine Valentino, his skill may justify his coveted ride.