Egmont's column: The Untouchables
That’s how Jarno Trulli described Seb Vettel after the Japanese GP.
And the young German was.
His clean sweep of quickest runs in Q1, Q2 and Q3, starting from pole and winning comfortably at Suzuka whilst just missing out on fastest lap (by 0.003 secs to team mate Mark Webber) was another example of how dominant the young German can be.
Take China this year, where Seb only needed a single flying lap to go quickest in Q2 and Q3, before running away with the race (yet missing out on fastest lap again, by 0.035 secs, to Barrichello).
Or Britain, where Vettel was fastest in both practice sessions on the Friday, plus Q2 and Q3, before dominating the race, posting the fastest lap as well.
That’s part and parcel of the Vettel Express which has scorched its way to an impressive array of F1 records already.
Check this out.
At 19, Vettel became the youngest guy yet to post a quickest Friday practice lap in the history of F1. He’s also the youngest to have scored a world championship point, grab pole, score a podium and win a GP.
So, not much left for Seb to gobble up, except F1’s “youngest ever world champion”.
That honour currently belongs to Lewis Hamilton, who was 23 years and 301 days when he snatched the title last year, in the last corner of the last lap of the last race, to beat Alonso’s previous record by 122 days.
Kimi Raikkonen, by the way, could – at 24 years of age – have been the youngest at that point, if his Merc engine had held fast at Hockenheim in 2003, the same circuit where he was robbed by suspension failure in 2005.
As it is, the Ice Man is still the eighth youngest guy to have been crowned champion, so that the current F1 field sports three of the top eight in the list of youngest WC’s ever: Hamilton, Alonso and Little Red(less) Raikkonhood – a trio that could just turn out to be next year’s main protagonists, if Kimi decides to swap Maranello for McLaren.
Vettel’s best chance
If Seb, on his part, achieves a remarkable full-house of F1 “youngests”, he’ll only finish the job in Abu Dhabi, leaving him at 22 years and 122 days young.
But that’s not important.
What is, is that failure on Vettel’s part will leave him with another year to notch up that specific “youngest” record!
That’s precisely where the stability of rules and regulations enter the equation.
Seb’s best chance would have been in 2009, for the simple reason that we’ve had a big shake-up of F1 rules from last year to this one, resulting in a powerful RBR contender from Adrian Newey, who is known for great responses to regulation changes.
No wonder then, that Newey was the only designer to come up with something really unusual in the shape of pull-rod suspension (at the rear of the RB5).
This now, for cleaner air flow over the lower rear elements of the car, and hence better aero and diffuser results – though the RB5’s wasn’t as good as that of the “diffuser gang”, led by Brawn, sporting double-decked diffusers which were clearly against the spirit of the rulebook.
If Vettel fails in his quest, one could convincingly argue that that’s where he has lost out.
Nope. Ferrari and McLaren’s championship battle deep into 2008 resulted in a late start on their 2009 cars. F1’s two top teams also launched their campaigns without a double diffuser, and with KERS, which is only now coming into its own.
Next year will be different. Brawn and Red Bull will find it a mite more difficult. Even McLaren could have a jumpy ride, what with Merc aligning Stuttgart’s muscle behind Brawn, leaving Woking – in all probability – to rely on BMW power.
For all of that, Brawn has struggled over the second half of 2009 to hang in there. The car is still extremely quick, if dialed in correctly, and if the drivers – especially Button – get the tyres going.
Which is not always the case. Some say the Brit’s cracking.
He’s not. It’s just that Jense is clearly in the habit of leaving things late, even though he fired a magnificent opening volley in 2009.
As early as the fourth race, though, in Bahrain, it became clear that the Brawn might pick up issues as the season develops. Button never really broke into the Top Three there – except when it counted, in the race.
In Spain he was worried and unhappy about set-up until he adopted Barrichello’s, which saved his skin.
At one point in Monaco, Jense was even in danger of dropping out in Q2, before clocking eighth fastest at the death.
On Friday, in Turkey, he couldn’t crack the Top Ten. Come Saturday morning, and he was still lagging outside the Top Six. At the last minute, though, Brawn found the sweet spot. Game over.
In Britain Button again scraped through Q2 in eighth with only a tenth in his pocket. Only three points for sixth in the race got Brawn worried, however.
Being in the middle of the Q2 pack at the Nurburgring did nothing to ease the anxiety, especially as team mate Barrichello was quickest. The race produced a somewhat late and fortuitous fifth for the Brit.
Luck running out
Brawn and Button’s luck in finding last minute set-up solutions had clearly been on the wane. In Hungary the car was just plain slow. Both BGP001’s struggled to crack the Top Ten; Button’s did, Barrichello’s not.
In Valencia, Button dropped down the order when he had to back out of a first lap scrum, yet at Spa he could not overcome the middle order crunch, resulting in a first lap crash.
Barrichello, on the other hand, could only muster the 12th quickest race lap; the Brawn clearly was fudge at Francorchamps.
Then Monza yielded a superb race between Jenson and Rubens – hardly signs of cracking up there – followed by a disastrous Q2 in Singapore, a track on which Button consistently gained time over the coarse of a lap, in Sectors 2 and 3 (leaving it late) followed by the same pattern in the race (leaving it even later).
Japan produced more of the same. Eighteenth during Friday Practice 1, no running in FP2 (therefore dropping to 19th), followed by 9th on Saturday morning, and bhham!: 3rd, 4th and 7th in Q1, Q2 and Q3, prior to being dropped down the grid, after which Jenson-come-lately turned his usual trick: faster in later-lap sectors, and ever quicker as the race progressed, scoring a point after another mistake-free run. Beating the better-placed Barrichello along the way by more than half a second on fastest lap charts.
There’s little in all of this to suggest that Jenson is cracking.
It is, in fact, ironic that title success – if it comes – could be attributed to four stunning passing maneouvres over the course of the season, in a game that’s notorious for overtaking blues.
Yet Button swiftly put clean and crucial beauties over Hamilton (in Bahrain), Nakajima (Hungary), Heidfeld (Monza) and Kubica (Suzuka).
Nope. The problem is not Jense.
The problem is Brawn. The BGP001’s sweet spot is difficult to find, mainly because of tyre issues, and then some.
So, off to Interlagos it is, where it will be hot (good for Brawn) or raining (bad for Brawn).
Fears that the Merc mill will out-drag the Renault V8 by a significant margin up the hill of the long pit straight seemed to have been put to rest at Suzuka, in any case, although the Japanese circuit is aero rewarding, which – we knew – would benefit Newey’s superbly shaped Red Bulls.
The battle then, comes down to this: (1) reliability over the last two races (with special attention to Vettel’s Renault mills); (2) tyres, traction, temperatures and the weather; and (3) ride and stability over the bumps of Brazil.
The Brawn performed better over Monza’s frightfully high kerbs. Red Bull, on the other hand, have found extra pace in Singapore and Suzuka. The RB5 is dynamite in the wet. And nobody shaves walls closer than Vettel, without touching it.
Who’s gonna be bad, then, and who’s gonna be good? If permutations fall Seb’s way, the driver’s championship might just go down to the wire.
Then we’ll see who is really untouchable.
PS: Renault was lucky to escape Crashgate untouched. Yet another F1 scandal is looming after allegations of ECU tampering at Monza, this time by another team, to exceed the 18 000 r/min limit.
Tampering is common in racing. Remember the WRC turbo scandal of the 90’s? And Luca Marmorini, who has just been re-appointed as head of Ferrari’s F1 engine and electronics development, once lorded it over two engineers found guilty of having brought Ferrari intellectual property to Toyota F1, way back when.