With only one of 20 Formula One races in the books, Lewis Hamilton certainly shouldn't be panicking, but a bit of concern might be merited.
The 2008 world champion looked and sounded utterly defeated after Sunday’ F1 season opening Australian Grand Prix where his McLaren teammate Jenson Button delivered a dominant victory and solidified the feeling that he is now the outfit’ leader.
To make matters worse for Hamilton, who took a promising pole position in Saturday qualifying, Button scored his convincing win after snatching the lead from his teammate at the first corner and never looking back. Hamilton ended the day third, behind reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel of the Red Bull squad.
There was no mistaking Hamilton’s body language and feeling sorry for himself attitude in the post-race press conference for the top-3 finishers. He looked like a driver with his motivation knocked out of him, giving curt one- or two-sentence answers, acting completely disengaged, and seeming like he'd rather be anywhere else than sitting next to winner Button.
His longest answer in the press conference was a stingy 51-word response to the question: “It wasn't your day, was it?”
“No,” he said. “First of all, congratulations to Jenson, he did a fantastic job and congratulations to the team for doing a great job over the winter. Yeah it as just a bit of a tough day but we have plenty of races ahead so I just have to keep my head down.”
From there, it just went downhill with the answers getting shorter with every question. At one point in the press conference he was asked a series of five consecutive questions and the sulking Hamilton used only 78 words to answer them all.
Hamilton endured a barrage of criticism last season that flowed from his erratic performances on track and some highly publicized troubles in his personal life, especially his on again-off again relationship with pop star girlfriend, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, as well as a move to Monaco and musings about roles in Hollywood films.
Many felt the young driver had lost focus, something that some thought was confirmed when he finished behind Button in the 2011 world championship points table. By the end of last season, it seemed clear to most that Button had taken the reins as team leader and the McLaren outfit was now his. Button's win in Australia only cements the view that 2009 world champion Button has the upper hand on his younger, and sometimes impetuous teammate.
Fortunately for Hamilton, he does possess a massive talent and when his head is in the game, he's tough to beat.
Hamilton wasn't without company after Sunday's race, with Ferrari also needing to take a good look in the mirror after a rough weekend.
It's a fairly solid indication of how bad things are at an F1 team when the biggest positive a team boss gleans from a grand prix is the outfit's performance in pit stops, which was exactly what Ferrari's Stefano Domenicali noted following the race.
Unfortunately, the Ferrari car itself doesn't look to be too quick and only the sheer brilliance of Fernando Alonso delivered a top-5 finish for the team. The two-time world champion started 12th on the grid after a mistake in Saturday's qualifying session found him beached in a gravel trap.
He made up for the error on Sunday and ended the day fifth, which was much better than most predicted for the Ferrari after it struggled in pre-season testing. Unfortunately for the Scuderia, Melbourne's Albert Park street circuit isn't really a good gauge of performance due to its slower layout and low traction.
That could be why Alonso hinted that the team may be hard pressed to repeat the Melbourne result at the Sepang Circuit during this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix.
“We are probably a second off pole and there are seven or eight teams who are all very close to one another,” he said.
“In one sense, that’s good news because if we can improve by a few tenths, then we can make up a few places. Next week in Malaysia will be a trial by fire, because Sepang is a very demanding circuit, for the cars and the tires.”
F1 safety car rules need a look
Unlike North American racing series, F1 does not close its pit lane when a full-course caution is called, which means the field does not form up behind the leader before the cars can stop for gas and tires. F1 instead determines a minimum time that should elapse for each car completing a lap as the safety car deploys, including those heading to the pits for service. The time for each driver is calculated by his car's electronic control unit and displayed on the steering wheel dashboard.
Unfortunately, the system failed miserably in Australia where two of the top five cars gained a place by pitting during the safety period. Hamilton and Alonso were the victims as both Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber gained places due to the safety car slowing the field.
In the Vettel-Hamilton case, both took an extra 27 seconds or so earlier in the race to complete their pit stops, with a gap slightly in the Red Bull driver's favour.
As luck would have it, the safety car deployed one lap after Hamilton had pitted for his second and final stop under a green flag while leading reigning double world champion Vettel by about two seconds. Hamilton lost about 28 seconds to his rival. When Vettel stopped a lap later after the safety car hit the track, he gained a place because his lap time including the pit stop was only a few seconds slower than his McLaren rival for a net gain of 22 seconds.
The identical scenario played out for Alonso, who pitted three laps prior to the safety car coming out. In that case, Red Bull's Mark Webber was able to jump his rival on track when the safety car emerged despite making a pit stop.
Now, there's no doubt the U.S.-style closed pit lane system used in NASCAR and IndyCar also causes problems. Most notably, a driver who is leading a race may be caught out by the safety car.
In many cases, leaders have had their races ruined by ill-timed yellow flags that wave during a pit stop window. In those circumstances, the leader must pit during the caution and can get shuffled far down the leaderboard behind drivers who made their stops before the full caution appeared.
While closing the pits can be harsh for some, the driver who stays out longer than his rivals understands the risk and accepts it. On the other hand, there is no possibility under the North American system that a driver who has already pitted will lose a position to one who has not.
The bottom line here is that a rule which allows drivers gain places on rivals by pitting during a full course caution simply doesn’t seem very sporting.
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