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Today’s Times at Paul Ricard

These are the times for the simulated Canadian circuit at Paul Ricard today. The configuration was run yesterday as well so I have added the times from both days as a rough guide to how the teams fared.

Kimi

Kimi Raikkonen

Although testing times are notoriously poor as predictors of race performance, it is interesting at least that Scott Speed remains the second fastest driver of the two days. It must be said, however, that Liuzzi may have encountered problems as the team did not run this afternoon.

Today:

1. Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1:28.624
2. Fisichella, Renault – 1:29.209
3. de la Rosa, McLaren – 1:29.249
4. Montagny, Toyota – 1:29.312
5. Coulthard, Red Bull – 1:29.834
6. Rossiter, Super Aguri – 1:29.869
7. Sutil, Spyker – 1:29.869
8. Heidfeld, BMW – 1:29.978
9. Button, Honda – 1:29.989
10. Nakajima, Williams – 1:29.990
11. Liuzzi, Toro Rosso – 1:29.993

Best Times for the Last Two Days:

1. Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1:28.624
2. Speed, Toro Rosso – 1:29.039
3. Kovalainen, Renault – 1:29.070
4. Kubica, BMW – 1:29.157
5. Webber, Red Bull – 1:29.179
6. Montagny, Toyota – 1:29.205
7. Fisichella, Renault – 1:29.209
8. de la Rosa, McLaren – 1:29. 249
9. Wurz, Williams – 1:29.359
10. Coulthard, Red Bull – 1:29.834
11. Rossiter, Super Aguri – 1:29.869
12. Sutil, Spyker – 1:29.869
13. Heidfeld, BMW – 1:29.978
14. Button, Honda – 1:29.989
15. Nakajima, Williams – 1:29.990
16. Liuzzi, Toro Rosso – 1:29.993
17. Barrichello, Honda – 1:30.108
18. Klien, Honda – 1:30.235
19. Albers, Spyker – 1:32.245
20. Winkelhock, Spyker – 1:32.756

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On Giving the Drivers a Break

I have written before about the pressure the arrival of new and talented young drivers puts on the old guard of F1. Even recent arrivals like Mark Webber must be looking at the hype surrounding such hotshoes as Kubica, Kovalainen, Sutil and Hamilton and wondering where their next drive is coming from.

Lewis

Lewis Hamilton

The first few races have put some of this into perspective, with Kovalainen and Kubica struggling to make an impact at first, but Hamilton’s amazing form has upped the ante for everyone, including the young ones. Suddenly every team owner wants another Hamilton and the pressure transfers to the new arrivals to prove that they, too, can work miracles.

No doubt reality will break through eventually and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief as Hamilton makes the occasional mistake or suffers a run of bad luck (he had both in GP2 – it will happen in F1 too). But the benchmark for new drivers has moved higher than ever before and will stay there.

Like him or loathe him, Michael Schumacher has become the model for drivers to be measured against now. The extreme levels of fitness, commitment, technical ability, tactical astuteness, public persona and speed he demonstrated are now expected of all drivers and we may have seen the last of the drivers who rely only on a God-given talent to see them through.

Hence the pressure on Raikkonen at the moment; he is seen as supremely talented but uncommitted to his task and his early departure from the Barcelona GP is cited as evidence of this. Rumors abound that Scott Speed is about to be replaced at Toro Rosso (by Vettel, of all people) and the denials by Berger and Tost do little to quell speculation. The pressure on drivers mounts to the point where the message becomes “deliver the goods by mid-season or you’re history”.

It is all faintly ridiculous and ignores the fact that many champions have taken time to find their feet in F1. Nigel Mansell was one and it took Keke Rosberg years to be offered a competitive drive. We need to face the fact that not every potential champion is a Schumacher, that many great talents of the future will have other approaches to their task.

All of which is leading up to another plea for Speed not to be dismissed. I have already pointed out his excellent performance at Barcelona, in spite of bad luck preventing any fulfillment of the promise. Here now are the midday practice times from today’s testing session at Paul Ricard:

1. Webber – Red Bull – 1:29.687
2. Raikkonen – Ferrari – 1:30.051
3. Speed – Toro Rosso – 1:30.053
4. Barrichello – Honda – 1:30.108
5. de la Rosa – McLaren – 1:30.457
6. Montagny – Toyota – 1:30.478
7. Rossiter – Super Aguri – 1:30.575
8. Kovalainen – Renault – 1:30.917
9. Kubica – BMW – 1:30.931
10. Wurz – Williams – 1:31.324
11. Winkelhock – Spyker – 1:32.756
12. Albers – Spyker – 1:32.960

Enough said.

Update – Final Times from Paul Ricard, 3rd Day:

Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1:28.833
Speed, Toro Rosso – 1:29.039
Kovalainen, Renault – 1:29.070
Kubica, BMW – 1:29.157
Webber, Red Bull – 1:29.179
Montagny, Toyota – 1:29.205
Wurz, Williams – 1:29.359
de la Rosa, McLaren – 1:29.528
Barrichello, Honda – 1:30.108
Klien, Honda – 1:30.235
Rossiter, Super Aguri – 1:30.286
Albers, Spyker – 1:32.245
Winkelhock, Spyker – 1:32.756

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Undertaking in Barcelona

Did the new chicane make a difference to overtaking at the Spanish GP? You know it did not. But the modification to the track will sit there and grin at us from now on, having ruined a couple of fast corners without giving us anything in return. Track alterations stay, whether they achieve the desired result or not – after all, it is more important that the track designer save face than that the racing be improved at all.

Start

So Barcelona remains the track where you overtake in the first few hundred yards or not at all. Alonso made his bid for the lead, failed and that was the end of any real fight at the front. Technically, Fernando was a little ahead at the corner and by the unwritten rules was entitled to claim the line in theory. But Massa was already committed and had nowhere to go, even had he wanted to after being criticized in the early races for not being aggressive enough. The slight bump that sent Alonso into the gravel was the risk he took and both drivers were lucky not to have suffered worse – a racing incident, indeed.

Thereafter things settled into the usual pattern of waiting for the driver ahead to run into trouble. Kimi Raikkonen duly obliged, electrical problems putting him out early and allowing Alonso back into third. Perhaps only Chris Amon can truly understand the thoughts that must be going through Kimi’s head as he wonders whether his bad luck has followed him to the ultra-reliable Ferrari team.

If we were only interested in the lead, Barcelona would have been boring indeed. But there was plenty to interest, mostly in the form of progress by some and disaster for others. David Coulthard had a great race in the Red Bull RB3, showing that it is becoming a force at last, and Super Aguri scored a point, admittedly thanks to Renault having a problem with their (French-made) fueling rig.

BMW were a little less convincing this time out, Robert Kubica coming in fourth but Heidfeld being on the receiving end of some blundering pitwork that saw a wheelnut deserting to the Toyota team. A little more Germanic efficiency required, methinks (and a rap on the knuckles for the lollipop man, no doubt).

Talking of Toyota, they joined Toro Rosso in having a truly (Trulli) dismal weekend, both cars retiring before lap 44. Not even Ralf’s optimism and Jarno’s amazing effort in putting the car into sixth in qualifying could save them this time. I have more sympathy for Scott Speed, however, who looked set to prove all his critics wrong with a tenth fastest time in practice and then a leap from last to 14th in the race, only to have a tire explode. After being robbed of the chance for a decent grid spot by engine failure in qualifying, it was Raikkonen-like luck indeed.

The interest was all in what might be coming in the future of this season. Yes, we have a battle royal for the title that should continue for a while at least, but we also have a few teams that look to be getting it together at last. Red Bull are beginning to threaten BMW’s third fastest spot and Renault are improving faster than Fisichella had predicted. Williams are a bit unpredictable but quicker than Toyota at least, while Toro Rosso show signs of real improvement. Things are tight in the midfield and could become even tighter.

And now we look ahead to Monaco, traditionally the circuit where driving skill counts for more than aerodynamics. Hamilton is confident, having raced in the principality before, Fernando and Kimi know it only too well; can this be the circuit where Massa finally convinces me?

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Free Practice in Barcelona

It has been such a long break in between GPs that today’s free practice sessions are worth examining in a bit more detail than usual. And the news is that Alonso was fastest, perhaps putting an end to the silly speculation that he is under any pressure from Lewis Hamilton. The champion’s time was three tenths quicker than that of his closest challenger, Fisichella, and was set within the first half hour, whereas Giancarlo’s was a last minute effort.

Alonso

On the face of it, the McLarens seem to be the cars to beat, Massa and Raikkonen finishing with the fourth and sixth fastest times respectively. But this is only practice and the real test will come tomorrow in qualifying. For much of the second session the Ferraris were clearly working on race set ups, anyway.

The pace of the Renaults (second and third fastest) tempts one to think that they have solved their problems, but both times were set right at the end of the session and were probably minimum-weight morale boosters. Much more surprising was the Toro Rosso of Scott Speed. His time was set early on but remained good enough for tenth fastest at the end, later runs being spoiled by an off course excursion. Even presuming that the car was set up for speed rather than endurance, it was an unexpected lap and might give second thoughts to those who doubt Scott’s ability.

Other than that, it was pretty much business as usual, with the BMWs being a little slower than we might have expected and the Red Bulls also disappointing somewhat. As I predicted earlier this week, the Super Aguris are losing their grip on the midfield and drifting down towards the back of the grid. But the Toyotas were awful, even their late runs failing to lift them from the company of the back markers. Everyone may have made progress over the long break but it seems some have made much less than others.

The times have to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course, and the likelihood is that qualifying will produce a very similar grid to those seen in the first three races. But, unless Ferrari were sandbagging as never before, we will not see them dominate qualifying as I was beginning to fear. On this evidence, things will remain very close up front and we could enjoy a fiercely-fought battle on Sunday.

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