Raffles Avenue Rush Hour – Day 2 at the Singapore Grand Prix

Stationing myself trackside at Raffles Avenue, I hear the approach of cars as they exit Turn 14, the crescendo of the V6 engines rushing towards me. A white car quickly approaches, the driver’s helmet predominantly dark blue—it’s the Williams of Valtteri Bottas. I follow him with my eyes as he zooms past me from my right at roughly 220 km/h and disappears to my left into the Turn 15 kink before braking for Turn 16. An identical white car follows. The green helmet indicates that it’s Felipe Massa, Bottas’s teammate. Next comes a car with a striking blue livery with an equally striking orange helmet—young Felipe Nasr in his Sauber. One by one, lap after lap, I focus on each car that passes, identifying each driver through his helmet design. Standing so close to the track, I could almost peer in through their helmet visors and catch a glimpse of the concentration of a Formula One driver’s eyes. Each driver is so well-concealed in his car that it’s easy to forget that these high-speed machines are all under human influence. Only the crash helmet that blends in quite seamlessly and barely sticks out of each car’s cockpit is the only evidence for such.

Driving a Formula One car is truly comparable to taming a wild animal. The cars are beasts roaring around the streets of Singapore in the night. One would completely understand that it takes a special kind of strength and athleticism to handle the forces of turning, accelerating, and braking in these cars. I picture the power struggle that goes on between driver and machine: The driver manhandles the car, the car manhandles the driver. I mentally strap myself to a seat in an F1 cockpit and imagine how I would fare if I had the chance to tame such beasts, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to put such a powerful car under the control of my mere hands and feet. I think it would be the car itself that would take me out for a ride, rather than me taking the car for a drive.  Continue reading “Raffles Avenue Rush Hour – Day 2 at the Singapore Grand Prix”

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Formula One’s Sustainable Development

Photo credit: Racecar Engineering YouTube page

This is a magazine-style article that I wrote as an open-topic paper for one of my classes in school. Here, I explain as best I could how I understood the modern Formula One Power Unit (engine) and, through these new hybrid-powered engines, the sport attempts to be more environment-friendly. This is an edited version of the originally published (submitted to my professor) article on March 20, 2015.  Continue reading “Formula One’s Sustainable Development”

2015 Brazilian GP Race Review

nico rosberg brazil 2015

It looks like Nico Rosberg has found his winning form albeit the fact that Lewis Hamilton has long since clinched the World Championship. Rosberg has been victorious in the two races following Hamilton’s title-clinching win at Austin three weeks ago. The win ensured Rosberg as vice-champion for the second year in a row behind Hamilton, finally quelling the threat of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for second place in the drivers’ championship.

The pace of the top three finishers Rosberg, Hamilton, and Vettel was supreme. In the end, the leader had lapped every car up to the fifth place finisher Valtteri Bottas, leaving only the top four finishing on the lead lap. Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth, followed in order by Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg, Daniil Kvyat, and hometown hero Felipe Massa in eighth, although he is as of yet disqualified because one tire’s temperature on his car at the beginning of the race has been found to exceed the maximum. Williams are currently in the process of appealing the decision.

The race was almost tidy with only one retirement—that of Carlos Sainz’s in the first lap due to an engine failure. In an otherwise clean race, the lone incident came courtesy of Pastor Maldonado’s clattering into Marcus Ericsson at Turn 1 in the middle of the race. Fortunately, it resulted in no damage to both cars although Maldonado’s clumsy overtaking attempt was duly penalized with a five-second time penalty added to a subsequent pit-stop.

The only place-swap within the top eight from the start to the end of the race was Bottas leapfrogging Kvyat and Hulkenberg to move up by two places, otherwise the order was completely unchanged. A little down the field though, there was some battling for the final points-paying positions. Most of the overtaking was DRS-assisted down the main and back straights. Romain Grosjean and Max Verstappen rounded out the top ten, finishing ninth and tenth respectively but given Massa’s disqualification, should it stand, would promote both drivers up by one place and tenth rewarded to Grosjean’s teammate Maldonado.

Verstappen (left) dove around the outside of Perez into Turn 1, completing the move on the inside of Turn 2.

The most spectacular move of the race came from Toro Rosso’s Verstappen on Force India’s Sergio Perez as they battled tightly and side-by-side around Turns 1 and 2. Fox Sports Asia analyst Alex Yoong noted that both drivers were careful to avoid a crash even if there was slight contact between the rear tires of both cars but the move was otherwise clean, with Verstappen praising Perez for being fair. I think the move showed Perez’s true maturity over the years and Verstappen’s unbelievable precociousness as a racer—a true prodigy indeed at only 18 years of age. The teenager had more work later in the race, pulling off a similar maneuver on Sauber’s Felipe Nasr and passing Maldonado to get into the top ten with few laps remaining.

At the front end of the grid, the battle between the two Silver Arrows proved to be intriguing, as Hamilton maintained constant pressure on Rosberg, who effectively led the entire race. At one point after the first round of pit-stops, the leader appeared to have missed the apex braking into Turn 1, drawing Hamilton closer. However, Rosberg kept his composure and made no mistakes the entire race. Hamilton was left frustrated for not being able to properly challenge for the race lead, complaining that it was “impossible to follow [Rosberg]” around the track—highlighting the problem I talked about in my review of the Mexican Grand Prix about cars struggling to follow other cars. Because of this, Hamilton requested to split strategies with his teammate but Mercedes race engineers insisted on keeping their two drivers on identical strategies for the remainder of the race.

After the final round of pit stops for the leading Mercedes duo, Rosberg was faced with heavy traffic from back-markers. Undeterred, he carefully weaved his way through, strategically passing the slower cars before Turn 1, effectively keeping them ahead of Hamilton through Turn 2 and the long Turn 3. Hamilton, in his haste to catch the leader, locked his front-right tire while lapping Grosjean. The champion was unable to further decrease the gap to his teammate, leading to Rosberg’s triumphant victory for the second race in a row, and the second straight Brazilian Grand Prix.

It’s also interesting that Ferrari split their strategies not only between their drivers, but also with Mercedes. While a two-stop strategy was employed for Raikkonen, Vettel had a three-stop strategy and opted for Softs in the later stints, opposite to the Mediums used by the Rosberg and Hamilton. Vettel’s pace kept him close to the leaders, probably due to his opting for the softer, quicker tires. Nonetheless, Vettel’s gap relative to the leaders was notably smaller than what would have been near the beginning of the season, showing Ferrari’s steady improvement.

Heading into the season finale at Abu Dhabi in two weeks’ time, I think Hamilton’s threats against his throne are beginning to surface. Ferrari, led by Vettel, is charging ever closer and the champion’s teammate has not only dominated the previous two races, but has also claimed pole position in the last five. One could only wonder if Rosberg had successfully converted the initial three poles into race wins. If only Hamilton didn’t run him off the track at the start in Japan. If only Rosberg didn’t have his throttle problem in Russia. If only there wasn’t a “gust of wind” that caught Rosberg off guard in Austin that led to his late-race, win-costing mistake.

Rosberg heads into Abu Dhabi with head held high, eager to prove that he can match his championship-winning teammate’s pace. Equivalently, Ferrari is also eager to prove that hopefully by next season, they can match the pace of the constructors’ champions and encroach on the battle at the front end of the field.  Continue reading “2015 Brazilian GP Race Review”

Is Japanese Super Formula next for Stoffel Vandoorne?

Sky Sports broke the inevitable news that Stoffel Vandoorne is confirmed as McLaren test and reserve driver for the 2016 F1 season. After a year of dominating GP2 as a McLaren junior driver, the young driver says that he wants to keep racing next year to maintain and continue honing his race craft. With that, the Belgian has set up for a Japanese Super Formula test later this month. It all makes sense for Vandoorne to be set up with a possible race seat in Super Formula considering that Honda is one of two engine suppliers (the other is Toyota) in the category.

Personally, I find this intriguing news for Vandoorne. Given his blistering track record in the junior formula ranks, he is set to be McLaren’s future ace by the time either of their incumbent F1 drivers Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso reach the sunset of their careers. Vandoorne, per GP2 rules, cannot return to the series as he has already been crowned its champion at least once—championship-winning drivers are forced to graduate. In the open-wheel formulae ladder, GP2 is traditionally the final rung before reaching the top at Formula One. Caught in the liminal stage of being a successful GP2 graduate and being an F1 driver without a race seat, the Belgian has decided that Japanese Super Formula may well be the next step in his ascent to the pinnacle of open-wheel motorsport.

Super Formula was originally known as Formula Nippon up until the 2012 season. The series is run with spec-chassis cars, meaning all teams run the same chassis, the SF14, manufactured by Dallara. The SF14 is a relatively young chassis, having only initially run in the 2014 season. Being Japan’s premier open-wheel racing category, competitors are predominantly Japanese and all races are held in circuits within the country. I haven’t seen much Super Formula races but I did take time once to watch a rain-soaked race last season in Suzuka. The first thing I noticed was that the cars look very similar to GP2 cars, especially the front nose and wing ensemble. However, the most noticeable thing in terms of aesthetics is the rear fin sitting low with a pointed end towards the rear wing. Having found out that the two cars are both manufactured by Dallara, I wasn’t all that surprised.

As my interest in the category grew, I indulged on some on-board videos. I noticed the cars are strikingly stable and very quick around corners and even gave me an illusion that they were faster than F1 cars. I see that the driver hardly fights the steering wheel with hands that look so calm in what I’d imagine to be a frighteningly quick car. He weaves through corners—low, medium, or high-speed—with calm steering inputs, revealing a very nimble and responsive racing machine. Japan’s numerous undulating circuits such as Sugo and the legendary Suzuka make on-board videos much closer to a rollercoaster ride experience. Here’s Hiroaki Ishiura with a satisfyingly clean lap around the Autopolis circuit:

In the Sky Sports story that I linked above, Vandoorne mentions that Super Formula cars have lower horsepower compared to F1 but have faster cornering speeds. It all made more sense to me as to why Super Formula cars are so mesmerizingly stable and well-balanced, at least judging from on-board videos.

I think Super Formula is a great choice for a driver stuck in that slightly awkward liminal phase Vandoorne has found himself in. It helped that the Japanese connection with his backer McLaren-Honda has contributed to identifying and hopefully capitalizing on this opportunity. 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer didn’t seem to have this option available for him even though he spent his graduate year as test and reserve driver for Lotus F1. The lack of a Japanese connection hasn’t hindered Palmer as he has already earned his F1 race seat for the Enstone team next season. However, the GP2 champions that preceded Palmer, Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer, have failed to make it to F1 on a full-time basis, opting instead to race in sports car categories.

Not deterred by the lack of influx of fellow GP2 champions into Formula One, Vandoorne is adamant to keep himself race sharp in his bid to land an F1 race seat hopefully by 2017. He is set to make a pragmatic step in his career should he indeed end up in Japan’s premier open-wheel racing championship next year, thanks to McLaren-Honda’s backing. If I may, Vandoorne will no doubt become a beast in F1 and a true ace for McLaren if he competes in Super Formula as a stage rehearsal for a much anticipated Formula One career.

2015 Mexican GP Race Review

Nico Rosberg celebrates his victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. Photo credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Official Facebook Page
Nico Rosberg celebrates his victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. Photo credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Official Facebook Page

A festive atmosphere greeted Nico Rosberg as he stood on the top step of the podium following a commanding victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. Unlike a traditional podium setup overlooking a grandstand on the main straight, the podium was set up in front of the crowd at the baseball stadium complex of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. Throughout the weekend, the Mexican fans have been raucous, cheering on hometown hero Sergio Perez whenever he passes through a grandstand complex, and were equally loud when the top three finishers Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas made their way up to the podium ceremony.  Continue reading “2015 Mexican GP Race Review”