Sunday, 24 August 2014

Belgium: post-race analysis

Well, the bet didn’t come off. Very unusually, Alonso’s engineers didn’t clear the car in time for the formation lap (he needed a new battery at the last minute) leading to a 5 second penalty at a pit stop (which sounds mild and might otherwise be, but it had a substantial impact on his race result). So, the bet was red and the hedge unmatched. Would he have had a podium but for that? Possibly. Raikkonen was very close, but it’s worth mentioning Alonso also suffered a slowdown on the last few laps (he may just have been conserving the car after ending up 8th after a very tight battle for 5-8th places). Anyway, disappointing, but lucks always plays a role and it doesn’t always go well.

There was drama off the start. Rosberg started poorly, Hamilton well. Alonso, lacking the opportunity to go through the usual routine to optimise the start procedure due to the aforementioned battery problem and dysfunctional formation lap, was a bit lacklustre and both Red Bulls had a good start.

On lap 1 the Mercedes, Hamilton leading, were battling tightly. Hamilton cut across Rosberg, on the racing line. The German lost a substantial portion of his front wing, and the Briton ended up with a punctured rear tyre at the worst part of the lap.

Rosberg got the lead, Hamilton spent about 3 miles trundling back to the pit, the shredded rubber flaying his floor and further damaging the car. In effect, Hamilton’s race ended there (despite his continuous calls to retire, the team kept him out until lap 39 of 44).

It was a racing incident. No man was to blame, though one suspects it will not engender warm and fuzzy feelings between the two drivers.
Added extra bit: was just watching the BBC livefeed after the race. Apparently Mercedes blames Rosberg, publicly. If so, that’s both foolish and wrong. If a driver cuts across a car in front of him that can lead to the position being defended, the lead car suffering a puncture, or the following car losing part of the front wing. It was a racing incident.

Rosberg did not escape scot-free. The damage to his front wing was substantially hampering his performance, eventually leading to an early stop (meaning he had to switch to a three stop strategy) which was 7s or so longer than usual due to a nose change. In essence, it cost him victory. But he made up 18 points on Hamilton, so I don’t think he’ll be too upset.

Early on, the top 6 were all within 1s of the driver ahead.

Rosberg’s woes, Hamilton’s retirement and Alonso’s long stop putting him into traffic meant we had the two Red Bulls at the sharp end. Vettel made a small mistake enabling Ricciardo to pass, and from there the grinning assassin did not look back. Vettel ended up in traffic after pit stops, and, like Alonso, struggled to make much headway.

Weirdly, Hamilton couldn’t get much above 16th. One can only assume his floor was wrecked (and he was about 60-70s off the leader for most of the time).

Raikkonen had stopped very early, but unlike others this worked to his advantage. For a long time the Finn was in a podium position, but, late on, fell victim to the mighty straight line speed of the Williams as Bottas claimed his fourth podium position of the year.

Because Rosberg pitted so early when he eventually clambered into 2nd, behind Ricciardo, he could not make the tyres last. So, he pitted and went on a charge. Although he cut down the lead the Aussie had from about 20s to just a few, he was never close enough to challenge. He’ll be disappointed, but extending his lead over Hamilton by 18 points will probably lighten his mood rather a lot.

For the last few laps positions 5-8th were all within a second of one another, and there were fantastic scenes on-screen as we saw the McLarens, Alonso and Vettel dice with one another. Ultimately the order was Vettel, Magnussen, Button and Alonso [thanks to Ally from Twitterland: it turns out the Spaniard lost part of his front wing, hence slowness]. Perez and Kvyat rounded out the top 10.

So, it was a rather eventful race, with quite a lot of on-track action. Surprised the Mercedes wasn’t more dominant. Worth noting, however, that the Red Bull’s rear wing was skinnier than a supermodel on a diet, whereas Mercedes and Williams (due partly to the wet qualifying) both had fuller wings. That means more potential to strip downforce for Monza, boosting top speed. I expect the Italian race to be between Mercedes and Williams.

Force India were the worst of the Mercedes-powered cars today, by quite a long way. Hulkenberg didn’t even score, and McLaren have bolstered their advantage over Force India in the Constructors’. Massa was very off-colour, an anonymous 13th compared to his team mate’s podium. Illness? Car trouble? Not sure, but it means Ferrari retain 3rd in the Constructors’ despite Bottas’ excellent showing.

Both Lotuses retired again. Hell of a comedown from last season (they’re like the Anti-Williams). I hope for Grosjean’s sake they can get pace, or reliability (or even both) for next season, because right now it’s a shade embarrassing. One of them touched Bianchi’s car on the opening lap, which caused a puncture. The talented Frenchman retired, though I’m not sure whether or not it was as a direct result of the contact.

Rosberg 220
Hamilton 191
Ricciardo 156

Is Ricciardo now a contender?

No. Why not? He’s had three wins, but all three had large elements of luck. That’s not to say he didn’t deserve them (he was in the position to take advantage) but it is to say he won’t have huge slices of fortune at enough races and the Red Bull is too far behind (perhaps excepting Singapore) to consistently challenge the Mercedes on pace. Twenty-nine points is a tasty lead, but because of the double-points idiocy 50 is the magic number. I would be surprised if Rosberg accrues such an advantage by Abu Dhabi.

Mercedes 411
Red Bull 254
Ferrari 158
Williams 150
McLaren 111
Force India 100

Short of a miracle the title is Mercedes’. I do think Red Bull are almost nailed on for 2nd. Ferrari should lose 3rd to Williams, but Raikkonen drove his best race of the season by a mile at Spa and if he maintains that form Williams might find themselves struggling for bronze position. To be honest, I think Williams will overtake the prancing horse, as their car is simply better (but it will need Massa to pull his weight).

Force India’s lack of upgrades is hurting them now. The McLaren is a better car and Force India, having been one of the best teams earlier, are now looking like finishing 6th, despite a strong driver pairing.

The murmuring I read on the BBC livefeed after the race suggests bad blood from Hamilton towards Rosberg, and that the Mercedes bosses blame the German driver. Maybe on replay it’ll look different, but at the time my feeling was 100% that it was a racing incident. Hamilton cut across Rosberg multiple times defending in Bahrain. Sometimes, an accident happens and it can hurt neither, one, or both drivers.

Monza is next, in a fortnight. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for the odds on Williams top scoring.

Morris Dancer

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Belgium: pre-race

There was significant rainfall prior to qualifying, but the sun emerged before the session started.

Q1 was very wet. Some went out on full wets, most on intermediate. Both Caterhams went out, as did Gutierrez (who had a reliability failure, again), Chilton, Maldonado and, surprisingly, Hulkenberg. Bianchi did a great job to get into Q2, and, somewhat surprisingly, the Williams were (after Mercedes) the fastest. Would’ve expected Red Bull to be a bit faster. Lotterer (replacing Kobayashi this weekend) did well to beat Ericsson, although both are rooted to the bottom of the grid.

Kvyat, Vergne, Perez, Sutil, Grosjean and Bianchi left the stage during Q2, which was another persistently wet session. Mercedes were untroubled at the to, with Ferrari and Williams vying for best of the rest, and Red Bull a shade slower.

In Q3 Rosberg put in an early great lap, good enough for pole, and improved a little to get it by two-tenths over Hamilton. The Mercedes was in a league of its own, about two seconds better than everyone else. Vettel got third, Alonso fourth, Ricciardo fifth. Bottas, Magnussen, Raikkonen, Massa and Button rounded out the top 10.

Weather forecast for tomorrow is a likelihood of a dry race, although rain remains possible.

The bets I considered immediately after qualifying were:
Alonso podium
Bottas podium
Vettel podium
Hulkenberg points

Alonso for a podium tempts me quite a lot. The Ferrari seems to have been improved a bit, the Williams was a shade lacklustre and Alonso’s a great driver. On the other hand, his odds with Betfair are just 3 (I really wanted 4), and 3.5 with Ladbrokes, but no possibility to hedge.

Bottas was about the same (2.75) with both. He’s a very good driver and the Williams’ top speed should help a lot, but he starts sixth and if the Ferraris or Red Bulls can make enough of a gap the top speed advantage won’t matter (unless the Williams is faster over the whole lap).

Vettel was roughly the same odds. I fear that in the dry he might get mugged by just about everyone on a top speed section, though.

Hulkenberg was just 1.3 for points, which is taking the piss (Ladbrokes didn’t have this market up nearly an hour and a half after qualifying ended).

The markets weren’t really going so I decided to leave it a bit and check back after tea.

After tea:
Hulkenberg’s points odds were just evens on Betfair. Realistic as a possibility but not tempting at those odds.

In the end I decided to back Alonso for a podium at 3.25, hedged at 1.5. If a Mercedes (or both) fails that’ll help, but I also think he’s the most talented driver chasing, and Ferrari appear to have taken a step forward.

I suspect the fight for the win will be a prolonged duel between Hamilton and Rosberg. The former, starting second, claimed it was the better position based on recent history (with potential to pass early on).

It’ll be fascinating to see how Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams compete for the scraps. Rain’s unlikely but it could happen, and that would make things even more interesting.

Morris Dancer

Belgium: pre-qualifying

There were a lot of driver stories in the days running up to P1, and even during the first practice session itself.

Max Verstappen, 16 year old son of ex-F1 driver Jos, is to replace Vergne next year. Bit rough on Vergne, who is beating talented newcomer Kvyat and was basically equal to Ricciardo. At least the early announcement gives him time to try and secure a drive, unlike when Toro Rosso tossed Buemi and Alguersuari overboard with so little notice neither could get a seat elsewhere.

Lotterer replaces Kobayashi in the Caterham this weekend. It appears to be a one race deal. Bit odd, frankly. Even more weirdly, Alexander Rossi (a Yankee doodle that Gene Haas reportedly wants for his team in a couple of years) replaced Max Chilton for the whole weekend, due to ‘contractual’ difficulties. Only he didn’t as, halfway through P1, it was then reported Chilton would race as usual and Rossi would only get the seat for P1.

Sounds like Chilton wanted a better deal in some manner, and Marussia played hardball, causing the Briton to back down.

Anyway, tyres for the weekend are soft and medium. Two stop is likely but (if it’s dry and there’s a long safety car period) a one stop is not impossible. At the last check, rain was probable for qualifying and possible but odds-against in the race.

In P1 Rosberg was less than a tenth ahead of Hamilton. Alonso was close behind in third and Button was a more distant fourth. Raikkonen, Perez, Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo and Bottas rounded out the top 10.

P2 had Hamilton fastest, but I do not believe the 0.6s gap to his team mate reflects actual pace (Rosberg screwed up his fast lap). Alonso was again third, followed by Massa, Button, Bottas, Kvyat, Ricciardo, Magnussen and Hulkenberg.

Maldonado crashed in P2, bringing out a red flag, and Vettel never got to set a time (his engine had to be changed). One of the Sauber drivers suffered some sort of failure and brought out another red flag.

At this stage, it looks like Alonso could be good for a podium. McLaren seem to have made progress and I’ll see what their odds are (depending on how they line up on the grid) for a double points finish.

Williams were off the pace a bit but they often seem to sandbag during practice.

P3 started very slightly wet so a few went out with intermediates and wets, but it was mostly dry (rain forecast for qualifying, though). Bottas was fastest, followed by Ricciardo and Rosberg, then came Raikkonen and Hamilton. However, I think Mercedes were massively sandbagging. After Hamilton was Alonso, Button, Massa, Vergne and Perez.

Given the rain forecast for qualifying I decided against betting. Rosberg being 3.5 or so for pole (for the third race in a row) tempted me, and if it had been forecast to be dry I think I might’ve backed it.

Should be tight, if Q2’s dry, to see who gets into the final session.

My suspicion is Ricciardo will do well, and Alonso. Probably but not definitely between the two Mercedes. In the dry, Williams might pose a threat. In the wet, I don’t think they will. Force India and McLaren (and maybe Vettel) will struggle to break into Q3.

Morris Dancer

Monday, 18 August 2014

Belgium: Early Thoughts

The mid-season interval is nearly over, and the fantastic Spa circuit awaits this weekend. After a suggestion from Mr. Putney, I’m putting up an early article for vague musings about Spa (and the latter half of the season in general). Tips, suggestions, questions, comments and magic incantations to stop Flavio Briatore becoming president of Ferrari are all welcome in the comments section.

Hard to see Mercedes being caught. I expect Williams to challenge and probably better Red Bull at Spa and Monza (the next race) but the Red Bulls will be best of the rest at twistier, slower circuits.

How McLaren, Ferrari and Force India upgrade their cars will be critical. Force India especially have slid down the order recently.

A bet I have in mind is to back Williams to top score when Monza rolls around. I’ll try and remember to check the odds after Spa. They’re 8 to top score in Spa. Not sure about that, will mull it over.

A key question for the season is whether or not Mercedes have overcome their car’s fragility. It’s not a wreck, but they have lost a stack of points. That’ll affect not only other teams, but also who ultimately wins the title.

We’ll also see increasing discussion of the market for drivers next year, with plenty of potential movers, including (but not limited to): Alonso, Raikkonen, Button, Bottas, Bianchi.

Spa’s a circuit where both top speed and downforce matters. Hard to be certain but I’d guess Red Bull’s superior chassis will not be enough to trump Williams’ excellent power.

Morris Dancer

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The 2014 mid-season review

Unlike previous years I’m just doing the one review. It’ll be mostly racing, with a bit on betting at the end.

We’re 11 races into a possible 19 (Russia seems likely to go ahead but could yet be suspended, delayed or abandoned before October depending how the situation in Ukraine develops). Because of the mentally challenged decision by F1 bigwigs, the final race (Abu Dhabi) will be worth double points (this may end up determining who wins the title).

So far the majority of races have been hugely enjoyable. Racing has been tight with engine variabilities and tyre degradation combining to provide lots of on-track action, and we’ve had a couple of real classics (including, bizarrely, Bahrain).

Throughout the season, Mercedes has been the team to beat. Sportingly, they’ve let their drivers race (ignored team order in Hungary aside). Even more sportingly, they’ve had their cars break down on several occasions to give the other teams a chance.

The title began as a private duel between old sparring partners Hamilton and Rosberg and I feel it’ll end the same way. Rosberg has been serially underestimated during his career, and still is. Whilst Hamilton is slight favourite, I feel Rosberg has a very realistic chance of taking the title.

Hamilton has had the lion’s share of bad luck, but perhaps by less of a margin than the consensus would have us believe. Whether it’s down to driving style or sheer bad luck, the Briton is further along with most components as well, meaning that when they next fail he’s nearer than Rosberg to exceeding the limit and receiving grid penalties. Recent drives have shown he can cut through the field with relative ease, but such occasions will still give an advantage to Rosberg in an extremely close title fight.

Williams started off with great potential but never seemed to be able to deliver in the races. Compared to recent seasons (the 2012 Maldonado win aside) it was still fantastic, but in the last few races Bottas got three podium finishes in a row, and the team now aspires to displace Red Bull from second. That’s not impossible, but it will be challenging. If they fail to beat Ferrari to claim third that should be considered a failure, but given how bad they were in 2013 the whole season will do wonders for Williams’ morale. It’s also rather nice to see them doing well.

Red Bull found themselves in a position to which they are not accustomed: getting their arse kicked like a Frenchman at Agincourt. In testing, their car broke down at the drop of a hat and seemed well off the pace. It’s recovered significantly since then. In fact, I’d argue it has the most downforce and best chassis of any car (Mercedes close in second). However, its power is weak. At various tracks (perhaps most notably Canada, where Vettel was trapped behind Hulkenberg for many laps) this has cost them a lot. Ricciardo’s driven very well, but Vettel’s misfortune (unlike Hamilton’s) has been seriously overlooked. He’s suffered almost all reliability failures as well as on-track misfortune (he could have won in Canada, and it was bad luck more than anything else he didn’t). I expect them to cling onto second, but Williams won’t make it easy for them.

The Ferrari’s a dog, again. The engine’s perhaps even worse than the Renault, and if it weren’t for Alonso’s stellar performances the prancing horse would be at the knacker’s yard already. They’ll really struggle to hold onto third. They also have a serious problem, in that the work they can do to improve the engine each season will decline (ie if they don’t fix it for 2015 they’ll have less technical freedom and capacity to do so from 2015 to 2016). One suspects they’ve got Bianchi’s number ready.

McLaren is a bit weird. They scored (after Ricciardo’s disqualification) a double podium in Australia, and since then have slid backwards. They seem to have recovered somewhat, but are tussling with Force India to avoid being the worst Mercedes-powered team. Given the substantially greater resources of McLaren, that’s not good enough, especially after an awful 2013. Button may well end up getting axed.

Force India have been having a cracking season. First podium for a few years, and Hulkenberg’s been the second most consistent driver (after Alonso, the only man to score points at every race this year). The car’s reliable, and fast. It’s been surpassed by Williams and is in a tight battle with McLaren. Upgrades will probably dictate who’ll win that duel. Force India also benefits from a decent driver lineup (although I rank Hulkenberg above Perez).

Toro Rosso are slightly in a No Man’s Land. Whereas Mercedes are having a private duel for the title, Williams, Red Bull and Ferrari are battling for second, third and fourth, and Force India/McLaren are tussling for fifth and sixth, Toro Rosso is a little way ahead of Lotus but miles behind McLaren and Force India. The car is reasonable in pace terms but has been pretty lacklustre when it comes to reliability. Vergne’s been driving well, but it’s Kvyat, the young Russian newcomer, who has garnered the most headlines. He’s really hit the ground running and it’s not hard to foresee him ending up in a faster team sooner rather than later.

I wonder how Maldonado feels about leaving Williams for Lotus now. The Enstone team seems highly likely to get eighth, ahead as they are of Marussia and Sauber but nine points adrift of Toro Rosso. The pace has been missing for all but a handful of races and reliability, especially for Maldonado, has been dire. After last year, it’s a huge comedown and can only be partially attributed to the Renault engine. Losing their top engineer and driver to Ferrari and team principal (early this season) to McLaren has harmed the team, but serious funding issues may be more important than the personnel changes.

If Lotus are almost distraught at eighth, Marussia must be ecstatic with ninth, but will they hang onto it? The team have consistently outperformed Caterham and even managed to surpass Sauber when Bianchi got a ninth place finish for two points. Sauber may yet score (I hope so) but Marussia has a real chance of ninth, which would be worth tens of millions to them. Bianchi has been driving rather well and if Raikkonen decides to drive off into the sunset at the end of the year it’d be easy to see him getting a phone call to join Alonso.

It’s only a couple of years ago that Sauber were enjoying multiple podium finishes courtesy of the good pairing of Kobayashi and Perez. Last year the car wasn’t so hot, and this year it’s one of the worst on the grid. For the first time ever, the team may not score a point in a whole season. Sutil’s an average driver, and Gutierrez’s greatest attribute appears to be the funding he brings. On top of that, the Ferrari engine isn’t great and the car seems very twitchy. They may yet escape the PR disaster of not scoring at all, and I hope they do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they end with no points.

Caterham, alas, remain rooted to the back of the grid. The team’s been taken over by a Swiss-Middle Eastern consortium which has changed the team principal and axed 40 jobs (leading to a lawsuit and counter-suit). As yet, no real progress has been made on track, but the consortium might be the injection of cash and desire that will see Caterham finally stop being pointless. It’s also nice to see Kobayashi back in F1.

So, that’s the racing so far. But how about the betting?

I should state that I’ve considered the UK to be the final first half race, for a more even split (whether Russia is axed or not). On that basis, the first half of the season has gone fairly well. It was more profitable overall to bet-and-forget rather than hedge, but either way the result for H1 was green.

However, whilst the races have generally gone well, qualifying is red on either measure. I have bet less often on qualifying than in the past (only twice in the first half). The trend overall for race weekends has been for moderately positive results, with nothing dire or spectacular. I’m very happy with that, especially after 2013 began so poorly.

On title bets, these are also mostly good. Whilst Magnussen (backed at 50/1) won’t be winning the title, Rosberg (16/1 and 24/1 with Ladbrokes and Betfair respectively) may well. I’ve been able to back Hamilton at evens to end up green whatever happens in the Drivers’.

On the Constructors’ front things are a little less happy, as I backed Williams for the title around Australia. This won’t happen, but given the Drivers’ situation I’m not too displeased, overall, with title bets.

I’ll also be keeping a firm eye on the possibility of drivers moving from one team to another. I could see one or possibly both Ferrari chaps leaving (Raikkonen to retire, Alonso to go elsewhere), Button may be axed, and Williams may be tempted to shove Massa overboard if Alonso decides they have a chance at the 2015 title. Bianchi or Hulkenberg could move up to Ferrari/McLaren. There’s also a possibility Grosjean could replace Button (Boullier, McLaren’s sort-of team principal, was not only his team principal at Lotus but, I think, also manages him as a driver).

Looking ahead to 2015, a bet I’d consider would be Bottas to win the Drivers’ title (unless Alonso gets a seat with Williams). I think the Finn’s very quick and, unlike the Mercedes pair, he doesn’t seem to have a team mate quite capable of challenging him consistently.

I expect the latter half of 2014 to be just as exciting, and perhaps more fraught, than the first. My only fear is that the double points nonsense of Abu Dhabi may end up determining the title.

Morris Dancer