Nov 1, 2011

Indian GP, Hamilton n Massa...

First up, I'm really happy that India now hosts our own F1 race, and that the event went off quite smoothly - one canine intervention aside. F1 is still pretty much a first-world sport involving big money and cutting-edge technology, and hosting a race weekend is a sign that India is arriving on the big stage. I'm happy and proud of this, but I'm sure enough and more has been said about this in many places, so I will not go on.

Though finally watching one in HD was nice, the race itself was mediocre and followed the usual patterns. Vettel - as usual - ran away at the front. Button - as is becoming usual - followed him in a strong second. Webber - as usual - found himself competing with cars he should really have been ahead of, and provided some entertainment. As usual, Alonso drove well to get a podium place his car didn't necessarily deserve. Also as usual, there weren't too many spectacular performances or exciting moments on track. And Massa and Hamilton crashed - and it is disturbing that this can also be classified as 'usual' now.

Now, it is no secret that I'm a huge Hamilton fan. I will try and be objective in my analysis of this situation - though I don't expect to succeed :)

Part 1: Lewis Hamilton

There is no denying that Hamilton is one of the more aggressive drivers on track, and some of his overtaking attempts are quite optimistic. When he pulls them off, they look spectacular, but when something goes wrong, he also looks quite idiotic. In both scenarios, he's generally had to deal with consequences - either finishing races higher than other most drivers would have in his situation, or having accidents, penalties and losing places. Increasingly, he has been accepting the blame and apologizing to everyone when something goes wrong.

I would think this is quite acceptable, and very entertaining, if also a bit frustrating. But a lot of people have been criticizing him very harshly and consistently. They don't seem to think he is human and can make mistakes, nor are they satisfied with the consequences he's suffered as a result of those mistakes. They seem to think that the way he races is fundamentally wrong and he needs to change. This I don't understand.

As I see it, he drives on the limit, tries to finish in front of everyone else, and is ready to take some risks in the process. Isn't that the way 'racing' is supposed to be? What exactly do people want to see him do differently? Drive slower? Simply follow other cars that may be ahead of him, even if they are slower? Not do anything that involves risk? Effectively become another 'shrewd' driver like Button or Alonso, rather than the 'spectacular' one he currently is? I guess this may help him finish more races, maybe score points more consistently (even if it's fewer points than he potentially could) - but it will rob him of character, the sport of excitement, and the fans of entertainment.

I think the real reasons he receives so much criticism are
(a) He is a McLaren driver. Followers of F1 are predominantly Ferrari fans, and McLaren is the one team that has consistently been the arch-rival they hate.
(b) Schadenfreude. He is the opposite of conservative, defensive, humble, modest or insecure. He lives a glamorous life. People like to see such individuals fall. Not nice, but it's human nature.

That being said, he does need to get his act together. While he doesn't necessarily need to change his driving style too much, he should try and learn from his mistakes and exercise better judgment particularly when it comes to where & when he makes his overtaking attempts.

In some other forms of racing, people race in lanes so you can't block others - that's considered unfair. In most other forms of racing, even when there aren't separate lanes, someone's who's quicker can go around the outside of someone they want to pass. There is an 'ideal' racing line, but going off it typically means only doing a few yards extra - which shouldn't be a problem if you're quicker and the race distance is long. In F1, however, overtaking is notoriously difficult because of the both the racing conditions and rules. Not only does this hurt the sport's popularity, it treads a thin line between 'challenging' and 'unfair'.

But the men in charge, particularly race stewards, care much more for discipline than fairness or competition or entertainment. So the fact is - overtaking in F1 is, and will continue to be, very difficult. Drivers in front will not always yield when they should. Lewis needs to accept this, and find ways to work around these restrictions, be a little more careful and avoid confrontations. F1 is a complicated sport, and it isn't always just about being the quickest out on track. People like Montoya and Raikkonen were also talented, but couldn't quite come to terms with all the demands of the sport. Hamilton has to avoid going the same way, if he wants to achieve much more than just one WDC title in his career.

Part 2: Felipe Massa

Frankly, I hope we don't see Massa next season. At Ferrari, he is a waste of a racing seat and they should replace him with a young talent who could get better results and potentially win titles once Alonso retires. Even if they don't want someone to seriously challenge Alonso, they can find a better #2.

Some of my friends are Felipe Massa fans and a lot of people think he's a pretty good driver. But he isn't, really. Massa is in his 6th season at Ferrari and he has finished with fewer points than his team-mate in all but one season - and that was the season where Raikkonen had a melt-down, losing his mojo, Ferrari contract and eventually his place in F1. People say the best yardstick for an F1 driver's performance is his team-mate's, and Massa has been outperformed by three different team-mates in his five years at Ferrari, and in recent times, Alonso has been totally mopping the floor with him.

Sure, he has won a few races in the past and got some good results for Ferrari but all that's happened in seasons where Ferrari had the quickest (or nearly-there) car. Of his 11 wins, 8 have come off pole, and the other 3 also off the front row. In these 3 races - in one, he beat Kubica into turn one off the line, in another he passed Kimi who had a mechanical problem midway through the race, and the third wasn't even a real win - Hamilton finished 1st but was given a 25-sec penalty later. The point is - he hasn't ever won a race starting behind the front row or doing anything special on track, something which the really good drivers like Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel and even Jenson Button have all done. With so many young talented drivers around, and so few seats available, it's time Ferrari gave someone else an opportunity. They don't stand to lose much.

Of course, Massa could drive for one of the lesser teams next season - and this is most likely what would happen, but I wish it doesn't. I feel Massa in a slower car will become an even bigger problem. In a quick car, especially starting from the front row, he can do well - but he simply doesn't know how to race in the mid-field and is a risk to his own safety as well as others'. When under pressure, he tends to make a lot of mistakes - spinning when it's wet, hitting walls or kerbs trying to go faster in the dry. These are not 'racing' errors like Hamilton's - those typically involve wrongly guessing what the other guy will do - Massa's mistakes are generally basic driving errors of his own.

In the mid-field, I don't expect Massa to punch above the weight of his car and overtake lots of people because he's never really shown that ability in all these years. The biggest problem will occur when other people come up to overtake him.

There is a 'proper' way to defend a position on a race track. A good driver in a slower car can compensate for some lack of car performance with his own driving skills. He pushes his car as fast as it can go - braking late, using KERS etc. smartly, and taking lines that make it difficult for the guy behind to catch up and pass. Hamilton delivered a master-class in defensive driving in Korea. Even though Webber had a quicker car, he simply couldn't get past. Even when he drew alongside Hamilton - actually passing him once - Hamilton managed to get back in front by going quicker. That was skill. Vettel has shown the same defensive skill on several occasions, especially races like Monaco earlier this year, and Alonso is an absolute master when it comes to this.

But even with great driver skill, the car in front needs to be reasonably competitive - if it is slower by half a second or more, and the car behind has the DRS option as well, it is only a matter of time before he gets past. A sensible driver realizes this, and yields when he has to. Tough, but fair - that's the key.

Felipe Massa lacks the skill, the sense or the spirit to fairly defend his position against a quicker car. His 'defence' typically relies on physically impeding the other car, stubbornly sticking to the racing line, and not yielding space for the other guy to race. As it stands, Massa's defensive strategy works on the assumption that the other guy will always back off to avoid contact, and Massa himself owns no responsibility for the same. This is reflected in his statement after the Indian GP: "I simply stayed on the ideal line, braking on the limit and staying on the part of the track that was rubbered in. What else could I do?" This explanation simply ignores the fact that there was another car already on the same part of the track! Massa clearly doesn't know how to handle that situation, and in a mid-field car, he'll find himself in this situation often. I suspect he'll end up in a pile many times, taking down other quicker-but-unfortunate drivers with him, unless the rules change.

Mentally, as well - Massa doesn't seem to have recovered from his injury in 2009. He has simply not performed well, and does not appear to be confident or secure in his own position. He has had six incidents with Hamilton this year and one or two brushes with Webber as well. Even though he was in the slower car in every single one of these instances, he doesn't seem to think he was at fault in any way. In most of the incidents with Hamilton, Hamilton suffered damage, got penalized and fell further behind Massa, but finished the race well ahead of Massa each time. In two races - Monaco and India - Massa later made mistakes, damaged his car and had to retire, but even for that he blamed Lewis rather than himself.

After the last few races, Massa has whined about being denied potential podium positions. The fact is - Alonso has been performing at a much higher level to reach the podium, and Massa hasn't looked like getting there even if there weren't any incidents. His words just sounds delusional, and I suspect they are masking insecurity and frustration. I doubt if he can come to terms with the position where he finds himself now, or where he might find himself in the near future. I think he will become increasingly bitter like Barrichello has, and have lots of midfield accidents like Coulthard did, after they passed their peaks in top teams. So, I think it'll be best for everyone if his F1 career ended here.

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