Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Magic Alonso, abject Massa and Ferrari's Sepang dilemma.

Look there! Massa in the gravel! Massa in the gravel! There he is, the Brazilian’s terrible weekend continues,” piped out Antonio Lobato, lead commentator for antena3, Spain’s new F1 broadcaster.

But it was the other Ferrari beached in the gravel.

For several seconds there was a pause of near disbelief as the realisation dawned on Lobato and co-commentator Marc Gene: the red, yellow and blue helmet inside the car belonged to Fernando Alonso.

El Nano” or “Magic” Alonso, two of Lobato’s favourite epithets for the Ferrari driver, bely Alonso’s near-mythical status in Spain.

His elementary driving error at turn one, where his Ferrari speared off track after he clipped the grass under braking, rendered the commentators speechless. Only Karthikeyan landing his woeful HRT on pole would have provoked more of a shock.

But error or no error, Ferrari are in turmoil. Their new F2012 is less prancing horse, more wounded thoroughbred. Its underlying flaws, already evident from testing, were if anything more pronounced in Melbourne.

Throughout free practice both drivers grappled with unpredictable handling. The mix of entry understeer followed by exit oversteer and lairy slides as the cars struggled for traction, may have produced spectacular slow-mo, but the car’s deficiencies were plain to see, particularly in the hands of Massa, who finished with a hapless spin at turn 9.

On Sunday Alonso atoned for his qualifying misdemeanour, driving a dogged race to fifth and restoring some pride to the Scuderia. But the result owed more to circumstance and Alonso's talent.

Benefiting from a slice of luck at the start as he jinked inside the carnage at turn one, he extracted every ounce of performance from the recalcitrant car. To the delight of the Spanish commentators, his race pace was consistent and respectable, though hardly nibbling at the heels of the McLarens or Red Bulls.

It could have been much worse. Melbourne, largely bereft of high-speed directional changes, places a premium on braking and mechanical grip, helping to mask the Ferrari's aerodynamic flaws.

The high-speed sweepers of Sepang next weekend could reveal the extent of Ferrari's problem far more clearly. A driver can only transcend the car to a certain point – even for someone of Alonso's calibre if the basic aerodynamic grip is missing on an aero-focused circuit it's impossible to be truly competitive, at least in the dry.

If Ferrari will struggle in Sepang, one wonders how Felipe Massa will cope.

In Australia Massa looked out of his depth in an F1 car and unable to remotely challenge his teammate all weekend. He was still over second away from Alonso’s Q2 time, even after the spin. In the race, whilst Alonso was holding off Pastor Maldonado’s faster Williams for fifth, Massa was languishing outside of the points, at one stage battling Petrov’s Caterham and lapping, fuel-corrected, at least half a second slower than his team-mate most laps.

What has happened to the Massa that took the fight to Kimi Raikkonen three years ago?

Massa has never been the same driver since his accident. Did he lose a few tenths after his horrific injury? Is being the team's clear number two an insurmountable mental hammerblow? It's impossible to know. But more Melbourne-style performances and the impressive Sergio Perez will doubtless be lining up to take his place.

Lobato and Gene may have mistaken Alonso's beached Ferrari for Massa's. But given the pair's current form, it was utterly understandable. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

More questions than answers? Conclusions from Free Practice at Albert Park

For anyone expecting the season’s first F1 practice session to leave us much the wiser of the current form book, they were sorely disappointed. 

Melbourne’s typical bright autumnal sunshine was replaced by a selection of cloud and intermittent rain, hardly optimum conditions for F1 cars to stretch their legs and push the limits of performance.

None of the teams showed its real hand today. 

Mercedes and Michael Schumacher topped the timesheets, with the German 7-time world champion proclaiming himself happy with his runs. 

Red Bull looked muted – from the onboard footage Vettel was clearly leaving performance to spare. 

From its body language the car was not squirming around on the limit of adhesion even on the low grip of a moist track. Through the final turn, the fast right-hander where drivers deftly
feed in the power as the corner opens out, there was no hint of him ‘chasing’ the throttle or correcting rear-end slide.

Why should he? It wasn’t worth the risk. The cost of slamming the car into the wall, as Karun Chandhok did last year, would have far outweighed any benefit the team could have gained – the use of any data collected from running on a damp track is dubious at best.

Many other teams followed a similarly low-risk procedure. McLaren looked strong and clearly had performance to spare, whilst Force India underlined their solid testing pace with confident-looking laps from both di Resta and Hulkenberg. 

Their car looked planted and the drivers seemed comfortable from the off, a positive sign for Sunday, where in a race which so often produces surprise results predictability is valuable.

Ferrari's radical pull-rod derived F12 looked a handful in the hands of both Alonso and Massa, the Spaniard suffering several mid-corner wobbles whilst the Brazilian ham-fistedly beaching the car into the gravel after a careless spin at turn 9. 

The car looked visibly less planted than the McLaren or Red Bull, or even the Mercedes. 

Much paddock talk has been devoted to the Mercedes' new wing-stalling DRS enhancer but until its effectiveness can be measured more empirically it's difficult to quantify how valuable it is in reducing lap time.

HRT and its principal Luis Perez Sala looked sheepish after sessions to forget. Not only was the car slow, but unreliable – Narain Karthikeyan stopped on track in free practice 1 and De La Rosa completed a single installation lap. Karthikeyan eventually lapped 13 seconds slower than Schumacher. 

There should be more to come from the team – one hopes Karthikeyan was erring on the side of caution – but for many paddock insiders it will be a long shot if the team even qualifies. Apparently more personnel from Sky are present at Albert Park than from the entire HRT team, which says something about priorities. 

It's premature to ring a team's death knell after two inconclusive sessions but HRT could become a Mastercard-Lola type fracas (the short-lived 1997 team that arrived in Australia 13 seconds off the pace). But with the experience of Pedro de la Rosa the team should begin to make strides. They will certainly need to.

Lotus and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen were also muted, the Finn complaining of a lack of power steering feel similar to the one that blighted his testing at Jerez.

The problem seems to have been partially resolved as Raikkonen set competitive laptimes, finishing in ninth ahead of teammate Grosjean, but whether Lotus can completely quell these gremlins before qualifying remains to be seen. 

Actions speak louder than words if the famously reticent 'iceman' Raikkonen drove himself straight back to the sharp end after a two year absence, he would generate serious column inches.  

All in all, it was a frustrating session that produced little to upset the general hierarchy generated by testing. The old guard of Red Bull and McLaren seem well-placed and Mercedes appear to be in the hunt. But there remains little to suggest that one team is significantly ahead of any others. 

If dry, qualifying tomorrow will shine a revealing light on the true pecking order for the first time. Until then it's anyone's guess. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Paris is magic for Qatar - how the Middle East will alter European football

First it was Abu Dhabi. When, in September 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group scooped up Manchester City, it sounded the rallying call for the Sky Blues. Pumped up by its new-found financial muscle, the club is beginning to lord it over its illustrious cross-town adversary United. After three-and-a-half years and an eyewatering outlay of almost £320 million, Ferguson's 'noisy neighbours' have demonstrated a bite as daunting as their bark. FA Cup champions, Premiership leaders - and, with the likes of Balotelli and David Silva only starting on the bench - a squad with the awesome depth to frighten any European rival. 
Now Qatar is gearing up to follow suit and upset football's balance of power. In May the Qatari Investment Authority, tasked with investing its government's oil and gas surpluses, bought a 70% stake in Ligue 1 team Paris Saint-Germain. What followed was a spending spree on a scale previously unknown to French football. In came Argentine star Javier Pastore for a record €40 million plus French internationals Kevin Gameiro, Jeremy Menez and Blaise Matuidi. Last year only Manchester City spent more. 
The big-name acquisitions are already paying dividends. PSG, Ligue 1's perennial under-performers, currently top the table. Pastore, once considered too slight and skinny for the physical French league, proved a revelation. Ex-Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti replaced the inexperienced Antoine Komboire, underlining the club's metamorphosis into a European heavy hitter. In the run-in to the league title, few commentators are now betting against the club snatching its first silverware since 1994. 
But PSG's transformation extends far beyond its rejuvenated squad. To the Qataris, the club is a sleeping giant with the potential to be a worldwide brand, hence their desperate and ultimately fruitless pursuit of David Beckham’s gilt-edged signature. His outrageous projected wage, double Pastore’s, reflected the global value of football’s most bankable icon, not for any on-field heroics he might produce, but to to give PSG the 'brand' a shot in the arm. Beckham in a PSG shirt would have given the club’s reputation and revenues a stratospheric boost, creating global headlines, not to mention an inevitable spike in t-shirt sales. 
But PSG's time will come.  
"Paris, it’s Paris, and I don’t think people realise that", says PSG sporting director Leonardo, and he's right. How can the world's most visited city not boast a football club to match its presence on the world stage? Think Madrid or London; great cities, footballing behemoths - and where's Paris on the list? 
In five years the picture will be different.  By next season, PSG should be playing in the Champion's League. Carlos Tevez looks a near-certainty to sign up, and the club is strongly tipped to abandon its existing stadium, the Parc des Princes for the 80,000-seat Stade de France, proof positive of the Qataris’ grandiose ambitions. Their expansive vision of PSG as a global player demands a grander stage than the 49,000-seater Parc des Princes and they believe that their growing band of superstars and exciting style of football could fill a far bigger stadium week in, week out. It is partly an accident of geography and a lack of major derby rivals. Unlike Madrid, London or Manchester, there is no red/blue divide, no split between fans, siphoning off potential support, no 'noisy neighbour'. The club is Paris' only properly competitive football team. On paper, it has unencumbered access to 8 million Parisians. As a Champions League team, PSG will  reach a new level and attract players who once scorned its lack of prestige. Like the stadia of top Premier League sides, PSG’s ground could become a bona fide tourist attraction. Legions of Koreans and Chinese making the pilgrimage to Old Trafford see their heroes in action - and PSG could do the same. For tourists and soccer fans, the chance to see world-class football played in Paris could prove irresistible. The 'city of love' - the world's greatest tourist trap - with the chance to see the likes of Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo in action - what's not to like? As the PSG motto proclaims, 'Paris is magic' - and Qatar's investment could turn out to be just that.