Tuesday, October 14, 2008

James Allen's Japanese GP verdict

Against all expectations, the Japanese Grand Prix took place in bone-dry conditions, but there was no shortage of entertainment, incident and controversy all the same – and title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were in the thick of it.
ITV Sport commentator James Allen analyses all the key performances, including Fernando Alonso's majestic drive to a second consecutive victory, in his regular post-race verdict.There is so much to talk about from this race, it’s hard to know where to start.

We had Lewis Hamilton losing his head when all that was required was some pragmatism, Felipe Massa showing his ruthless side, Fernando Alonso and Renault again excelling and then a highly contentious penalty for Sebastien Bourdais – which gifted Massa and Ferrari an extra point, reducing Hamilton’s lead to five points.

Red mist
Let’s start with Hamilton.
Starting from pole, he knew that Kimi Raikkonen was a threat off the startline, but he also knew that Raikkonen was no threat to his championship position.
Second place here behind Kimi would have been fine, as long as Massa finished behind.
Ron Dennis even made this point in his press gathering on Saturday evening. So Lewis was told by Ron: “If Raikkonen passes you at the start, let him go.”
Lewis did the opposite. Once again, faced with a Ferrari in front of him he got a red mist on, just as he did when Kimi passed him in the pit lane in Canada.
He lunged down the inside with his front wheels locked up and pushed Kimi wide, losing vital places himself in the process – but more importantly, putting flat spots on his front tyres which would have made the car undrivable over a 20-lap stint.
So already he knew that he would have to stop for new tyres almost immediately.
But he wasn’t thinking about tyres; he was thinking about Massa, who had got in front of him.
He repassed Massa, who ran wide and then came across the chicane at him, and the inevitable collision happened, which spun Hamilton around and dropped him to the back of the field.
Ruthless streak
This was a different Massa from the one we have seen in the past, who didn’t put up much of a fight at Hockenheim, or in Malaysia last year, when Hamilton passed him.
This was ruthless Massa; he’d lost the corner but he wasn’t going to let Hamilton get by, so he hit him.
Hamilton can have few complaints about it – after all he’s put some tasty moves on other drivers this year – but it’s definitely a marker for him that Massa will not be a soft touch in future.
For this incident Massa was rightly given a drive-through penalty, the same penalty as Hamilton received for the incident at the start.
This dropped both of them to the back of the field and from there it looked like a tough climb back into the points.
At this point Massa was 14 seconds ahead of Hamilton, but at the end of the race he was 32 seconds ahead.
In other words he was able to use the Ferrari’s speed to recover, while Hamilton found his car compromised by bodywork damage and didn’t have the speed to fight back.
Nevertheless, I think it is interesting that, for the second race in a row, Ferrari set the fastest race lap, with Renault the second fastest and McLaren third.

Catching up quick
It shows how impressive Renault’s development has been this season, considering that they were over a second off the pace at the start of the year.
They’ve found something in the last few weeks which has transformed their car.
It’s either an aerodynamic tweak or a mechanical one which allows them to exploit the tyres better. Perhaps it’s both.
If you bear in mind that their engine is a little bit down on the Mercedes and Ferrari – to the extent that the FIA have been persuaded to let them bring it up to the level of the benchmark units over the winter – it has been a great effort on the chassis by the team from Enstone.
I wonder if this was a discovery they might have made earlier in the year. Either way, Alonso has now scored 30 points in the past four races, way more than the two title contenders.
Alonso was simply magnificent again today.
He rode his luck at the start, losing a place to Robert Kubica, but emerged second behind him after the Hamilton/Raikkonen incident at the first corner.
He jumped the Pole at the first round of pit stops by making a shorter refuelling stop.
He believed that the Renault was a faster car than the BMW and he was proved right, because when he got some clear air in the middle stint he was very fast.
He was also very consistent. He put in a sequence of laps which were identical to within a tenth of a second.
This was the Alonso who won two world titles with his relentlessness and sheer desire.
He hasn’t let his motivation wane at all this season, even when the car was barely good enough to qualify in the top 10.

Unjust punishment
Returning to the subject of ruthless Massa, the major talking point as we left the circuit was the ridiculous penalty awarded to Sebastien Bourdais for the collision with Massa near the end of the race.
Bourdais was exiting the pit lane and the pit lane exit light was blue to warn him that a car was coming down the straight. They were racing each other for position.
Bourdais came out of the pit lane, with Massa well over to the left on the run to the first corner. Massa drove like a man who felt that a Toro Rosso had no business being in his way and should let him pass.
Bourdais did everything he could to avoid a collision, even putting his inside wheels on the kerbs, but Massa came across and spun around him.
He might argue that he had his front wheels in front, but the team managers I spoke to after the race all said that FIA race director Charlie Whiting had briefed them in Singapore and again in Fuji that the car exiting the pits has right of way.
So once again, the stewards have gone against the advice Charlie has issued to teams, as they did with the penalty for Hamilton in Spa (where Whiting had told McLaren he thought Hamilton had acted fairly).
If the teams cannot believe the race director, what hope have the rest of us and the wider public got?
The FIA styles itself as the referee in this sport, but surely it cannot afford to keep sending out such mixed messages.
It confuses the public and makes some of them think that these things are being done for Ferrari’s benefit.
Of the professionals I quizzed at the track, 99% were saying that this was in no way an offence by Bourdais – but it gives Massa another vital point in the championship, to go with the six he gained at Spa.
And like Hamilton’s penalty at Spa, this one cannot be appealed as it was a 25-second penalty added to race time, in lieu of a drive-through during the race.
But the incident happened on lap 51, some 16 laps from the end. The stewards had 20 minutes to consider their verdict.
Ironically it took them only 15 laps to award the penalties for Hamilton and Massa at the start, so they could have arrived at a conclusion before the end of the race.

Cause for concern
A final note on Heikki Kovalainen’s engine failure
This could be a bit of a worry for Lewis, as Kovalainen had used his free engine change in Singapore because there was a concern there. Now Mercedes has lost one in a race.
If there is a problem part, they haven’t got much time to put it right before Shanghai.
Lewis is due a new engine there and he hasn’t taken his free change yet, so can also have a new one in Brazil.
But it will be a niggling doubt in their minds. Another one, to go with the doubt about Lewis’s state of mind in the closing stages of another championship that is his to lose.
James Allen www.ITV.com

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