Whenever I talk about the current Formula One season, I do so with absolutely no certainty as to the outcome, only the journey that will take us there.
My view, since before all twenty four cars first took to Melbourne’s challenging Albert Park circuit, has been that this would be a year where we would see little in terms of domination, with teams struggling to maintain the balance and traction required to propel them towards glory. This, as I have repeatedly said, will be a year defined by individual moments. Some will be great, some not so great, but all will matter.
My relationship with Formula One has two defining moments: The first of these was on Sunday April 7th, 1968. I was only six and wanting to play with my new wind-up propeller airplane. My father came into the kitchen. “Jim Clark has died” he said solemnly. And that was it. I had heard of Jim Clark, I knew of my father’s admiration for him, and I saw the shock and sadness in his face. Play time would have to wait.
My second defining moment was only a few years later; it was July 18th, 1970, the day of the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. The obligatory Sunday afternoon pirate movie had been swapped for 80 laps of cut and thrust in the Kent countryside. The race had not been spectacular, but it was close. Jack Brabham had led, and then Jochen Rindt. With only a handful of laps remaining, Rindt missed a gear and Brabham regained the lead, heading surely towards victory. Yet as he entered Clearways for the last time, he slowed and the crowds could only stand and stare as the fuel-starved car bearing his name coasted silently towards the line. Victory, and any last chance of winning the world championship was gifted to the tragic young German. I never forgot this.
Years later, as a driver myself, I would sometimes take risks; some would pay-off, others wouldn’t. The decisions were mine, as were the consequences. But when I moved into team management, I knew I had clear responsibilities, both for the safety of my drivers & crew and for delivering the best cars that would give the best results. So when I berate Ferrari for not pitting Fernando Alonso a second time in the recent Canadian Grand Prix, I do so as someone who has stood on the pitwall and watched a race unfold, and who has had to take decisions that will affect the outcome. Such decisions are not always easy, and they’re not always correct, but they have to be taken.
My issue with Maranello is that despite significant improvements with the F2012, they still have some way to go to match McLaren and Red Bull, and to a lesser extent, Lotus and Sauber. They’re catching-up, but they are still behind; the reality being that at some circuits, they won’t be in a position to challenge for the outright wins that they might at others (such as Silverstone or Spa). Yet despite the early disappointments with the car, Alonso is still very much a contender for this year’s title, but he can’t win it by himself – and whilst the design team are now playing their part, the strategists also need to do the same.
When Lewis Hamilton pitted on lap 50 in Montreal, he did so from the lead, and on the understanding that both Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel would soon have to follow. Ferrari, of course, had other ideas. They believed that they could take the lead by having one less stop and then control the race from the front. But almost as soon as Hamilton emerged from his stop, the evidence was accruing that should have told Ferrari to react. Sector after sector, Hamilton was showing “green”, sometimes “purple”; not only was he lapping quickly, he was taking at least a second per lap out of Alonso. By lap 55, Alonso’s lead was just eleven seconds (over Hamilton in third), and there were 15 laps remaining. Hamilton would not only catch him but with fresher tyres and DRS, he would breeze by with time to spare.
And worse was to come. Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez were also one-stopping, but their lap times weren’t falling away; they too were going green, as were Rosberg and Webber (who had both made second stops). Having failed to react instantly to Hamilton and preserve at least second place, by the end of lap 55, it was clear that if Vettel stopped, the best Alonso could hope for was third, but this could easily also be seventh.
So my argument is this: Alonso finished 13.4 seconds behind Hamilton. A second stop on lap 56 should have cost around 17 seconds (allowing for the time loss on the in and out laps). But, with new tyres, falling fuel load and DRS, even with just 13 laps remaining, he should have benefitted by some 22 seconds, which would have put him in a position to challenge Vettel for 4th. At the very worst, he would have been no lower than 5th (which is where he finished) and would have also been in a much better position to defend (should he need to) from Rosberg and Webber. Every point is going to count this year and Ferrari’s hesitation at these crucial points of the race might well come back to haunt them.
History tells us that some championships are won convincingly, others by consistency. Alonso might be the best driver on the grid but if he’s going to take that elusive championship title back to Italy, he needs his team to be the best too.
19th June 2012