Three-time World champion Sebastian Vettel, says Raja Sen, needs to make his way up the grid in a year where Ferrari looks nearly invincible, and the Lotus cars are blindingly fast.
On a racetrack, you don’t always race the guy in front of you.
Formula One is a highly strategic sport and often you might be racing the guy three places behind you, because the two guys ahead of and the two guys behind you are on a different strategy and have to make a pitstop, one you’ve already made.
So even though you’re third on the track, you’re actually running in provisional first place. Or you may be running in first place but instead of trying to open up a lead on the men in second and third, you’re trying to ‘cover’ someone in sixth place who (your team guesstimates) is on the same strategy as you. And so on. It’s deliciously complicated stuff and these days with Pirelli tyres built to degrade, it’s dashed hard to tell who’s getting it right until the last ten laps of a race.
But sometimes racers tell strategy to go screw itself.
Fernando Alonso stormed the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai last Sunday with a take-no-prisoners approach that was as relentless as it was imperious. Alonso snatched the race lead early on and held it constantly, and every time he came out of the pitlane to find new frontrunners, he overtook them on the track — with demonstrable ease — instead of waiting for them to dive in for fresh rubber. Rival strategies mattered only to the rest of the podium as Fernando flung his F138 flawlessly around the track and sped far ahead of everyone.
It was a remarkable demonstration of dominance, and, near the end of the race, when he was told by concerned Ferrari engineers not to overdo it lest he burn out his tyres or, worse still, his engine, he calmly replied he wasn’t pushing at all. After setting the fastest lap of the race. In a race of thoroughbred hounds, Fernando was a particularly nimble fox.
But that might be because the other fox shattered his own snout.
Overzealous in his urge to pass Sergio Perez, Kimi Raikkonen ploughed into the McLaren and immediately broke the nose of his own Lotus. He decided not to pit and the nose stayed broken. While it might have looked somewhat unsightly, but — as if spurred on by the wound — Raikkonen kept his foot down and looked incredibly impressive as he stayed comfortably out of reach of third-place man Lewis Hamilton. Apparently the broken nose cost Kimi nearly a quarter of a second each lap: given the striking pace he brought about regardless, Lotus rivals would do well to worry.
Alonso’s started already, hailing Kimi as the best of the year’s bunch so far. “Kimi is having a fantastic start to the season and driving maybe better than anyone,” said the Spaniard who, like Kimi, has won one race out of the three so far.
I wouldn’t disagree — particularly because there are few things in current Formula One quite so damned beautifulas the sight of Raikkonen swerving past the car on the outside of a curve — but there is one feller, who’s also won a race already, who will be chomping at the bit to prove Fernando wrong.
Despite all the controversy he’s generated, Sebastian Vettel is still heading the driver’s championship -- even though it must be conceded that the leaderboard doesn’t mean as much this early in the season.
More relevant is the fact that his car is clearly not what he (or we, for that matter) have gotten used to. The Chinese Grand Prix marked the first time since 2008 that neither of the Red Bulls made it to the top 8.
So the three-time world champion needs to make his way up the grid in a year where Ferrari looks nearly invincible, and the Lotus cars are blindingly fast. Meanwhile, the Mercedes, so spectacular in qualifying, is struggling in race trim — so far.
Will Bahrain bring us a new winner? Will these three champions continue to trade winning blows at the top of the leaderboard? Will Number Two drivers Felipe Massa and Mark Webber score for the underdogs? Will designer extraordinare Adrian Newey pull a rabbit out of an exhaust pipe and give Vettel back his wings?
And will the real Jenson Button please, please stand up?