Formula One - On and Off Track week 9

Formula One - On and Off Track week 9

By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Robert Kubica still optimistic, is Pirelli pushing the limits, the rain button - or how far is too far?

Robert Kubica still optimistic

Robert Kubica, who was injured during the Rally di Ronde de Andorra almost three weeks ago, is still in the Santa Corona di Pietra Ligure hospital in Italy and is now concentration on recovering from his injuries. The always optimistic Kubica has insisted he was very lucky his injuries were not even worse when a steel guard rail pierced right through his car and almost severed his arm and hand. “I know I'm not in good shape, but I consider myself very lucky,” he was quoted by the Italian La Stampa. “I am facing a long and difficult rehabilitation, but I am not worried about that.”

Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP fans
Robert Kubica, Lotus Renault GP fans

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Santa Corona Hospital's spinal unit chief Antonino Massone described the problems his patient is facing, ”There are milestones to be met, and his journey will be long. For a month, there is the risk of infection. When a bone is exposed for 45 minutes, as it was in this case, it is attacked by bacteria and we need to treat it with antibiotics.”

Renault doctor Ricardo Ceccarelli said Kubica has already started his rehabilitation, “His limbs, still for these last 20 days, have lost a lot of normal muscle tension and tone, so we are already working on that. But with these fractures, at least a month still needs to pass before he is able to stand on his feet.”

Kubica's manager Daniele Morelli made an interesting comparison when asked about Kubica’s strong will to recover from his injuries. “The doctors and physiotherapists, for him, are like the engineers at Renault; adjusting, modifying and correcting the machine for the best result,” Morelli said. Asked when Kubica will return to racing he replied: “Robert is recovering well, but at the moment it is impossible to predict if and when he could return to racing. We must distinguish between our optimism and the indulging of fanciful assumptions. At the moment, it's impossible to talk about timeframes.”

The Italian authorities have started an investigation in how and why the accident happened, according to Morelli it will take time, but admitted, “What is certain is that the guardrails were dangerous.” Kubica also broke the record regarding the number of visitors, the Pole is very popular and many of his colleagues have come to his bedside to inquire on his progress and to cheer him up. His friend Fernando Alonso has visited him for the second time, but also FIA President Jean Todt visited him.

Todt did not comment on his visit, but Morelli hinted the FIA president was satisfied with the care Kubica currently receives at the Italian hospital and commented his visit was a personal visit rather than an official visit. Despite Kubica’s eternal optimism and strong determination, it will take a long time before he has fully recovered from his injuries, and unfortunately for him, doctors still estimate it will take at least the remainder of this year before he is fit to race again.

Is Pirelli pushing the limits?

More and more drivers are questioning the Pirelli strategy to produce, at the request of the FIA, tyres that do not last long. Almost all drivers have complained about the rate of degradation of the Pirellis, and have predicted the tyres will totally change the game in Formula One. The severe degradation is what most drivers are concerned about. Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi was happy with the development of the tyres, but also has some reservations. “The grip level is lower, the tyres don't last as long, and once you overdrive them the drop is dramatic and can be five seconds per lap,” the Japanese driver said.

Fernando Alonso, Scuderia Ferrari
Fernando Alonso, Scuderia Ferrari

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Ferrari driver Alonso also voiced his concerns during a sponsor event in Madrid last week. “From what we have seen so far, degradation is very significant, which means we will have races with lots of pit stops,” the Spaniard said. But added this will not favor his Ferrari team, “I'm not keen on that because I think this increased uncertainty does not favor the strongest teams.” And made a comparison with football, “It's as if in football it was decided to have a penalty per team each half hour, in which case Barcelona and Real Madrid would not be jumping for joy.” He also claimed the harder compounds have the same problem, “The hard tyres degrade just as quickly as the softs.”

Team Lotus driver Jarno Trulli is also not a fan of the new tyres. “When you have new tyres there is initially understeer and then three laps later the behavior is different -- either oversteer or impossible handling,” the Italian said. The problem for most drivers seems to be the fast performance drop-off, which means the tyre performance considerably decreases after a few laps, and could be as much as five seconds per lap according to a number of drivers.

Force India driver Adrian Sutil also thinks the fast performance drop-off is a problem. “It’s like being in a touring car. [Or] like being on intermediates. I’ve tried to drive differently, say 20% slower at the beginning, and that gives you maybe on more lap. We will probably all be pitting at the same time, and quite often,” he said to the German Auto, Motor und Sport.

World Champion Sebastian Vettel about the tyres, “The problem is that they degrade too quickly. By lap 16 or 17 they’re falling apart. The problem is that after a certain number of laps the tyre is finished, no matter what the driver does.” He also said the problems could push drivers up to ‘ten or maybe more’ seconds per lap off the pace.

Although claims like these of course confirm Pirelli produces tyres that will force drivers to make multiple pit stops, it also means there will be an increase in speed difference between cars, which could lead to hairy or even dangerous situations. Drivers have last year complained about slower cars on track, and this year there could be more slower cars on track, albeit not caused by of a lack of performance as was the case last year with the new teams, but because they are lapping the circuit five seconds slower on ‘old’ and degraded tyres.

Pirelli tyres
Pirelli tyres

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Qualifying could also become interesting, with the current steep performance drop-off, a driver really only has one or two laps to put a fast time on the clocks, after that it will be impossible to go faster on the same set of tyres. At the start on Sunday, cars that finished in the top ten during Q3, have to be fitted with the tyres they have qualified on, and those tyres will of course be significantly slower than a fresh set of tyres.

Today Pirelli issued a statement in which they answer their critics about their aggressive strategy. “The increased degradation is a feature specifically requested by the teams and the organizers to improve the show. This is an opportunity for the sport, not a problem,” the statement read.

“What must be said is that we have not run with optimum conditions in the official winter testing, both in terms of temperatures too low and the track conditions. We hope that in Barcelona for next week's test there are the conditions to allow everyone to verify the real performance of our tyres. We will continue to work closely with the teams and pay great attention to their feedback,” Pirelli said in their statement.

The rain button - or how far is too far

FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone has caused some controversy again in an interview published on the official Formula One website, he again pleaded for his golden medal system and also proposed to spice up races with artificial rain. “Why not let it ‘rain’ in the middle of a race? For 20 minutes or the last ten laps? Maybe with a two-minute warning ahead of it. Suspense would be guaranteed and it would be the same for all,” the 80-year old Formula One boss said.

He admitted the adjustable rear wing was introduced to please TV audiences but reckons it will have little effect, “It is very difficult to control it by the stewards because the window of usage is very small. The chances for protests are inevitably there.” Ecclestone hinted the adjustable rear wing could be dangerous when the wing doesn’t snap back into its original position before the car enters the corner, but the FIA playing for God by opening the skies with a the flick of a switch would not be dangerous?

The last two decades the FIA and many people in Formula One have worked tirelessly to improve the safety of the sport and the alleged lack of excitement is no reason to throw all caution in the wind, an artificial rain shower just doesn’t seem like a good idea. Moreover, there are other things at stake here which are far more important than commercial interests: human lives.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone

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Formula One is not a game, and it is certainly not acceptable to purposely enhance the dangers that already are inherent to all branches of motor sport. How many drivers will spin off the track at high speed when this artificial monsoon is suddenly initiated? Ask any driver, going off track with 240 km/h is no fun at all. Add rain and poor visibility to the equation and the risks will at least double. The adjustable rear wing, already the subject of much speculation, should improve the show, but many drivers have warned that it would make overtaking too artificial.

For the Formula One purists the question is of course: how far can we go before we go too far? Does the public really want to see a race directed by FIA officials who intervene when a race becomes boring, and in fact could influence the outcome of a race by pushing a few buttons. Is it fair a driver is overtaken just because the guy behind him pushes a button, while the victim cannot? What kind of a sport would Formula One become? Would sponsors still be interested in spending money on a sport that has turned into a circus in the true sense of the word?

Poor moral decisions are also lurking around the corner. No insult intended, but should a race become a lottery in which Narain Karthikeyan crosses the finish line of the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in first position after Ecclestone has activated his rain button to please the home crowd? Or do spectators want to see a race where divers have to fight for what they are worth, and have to use all the tricks in the book and all their skills and experience to overtake another driver?

Never in its 60-years existence has a lack of excitement been the source of discontent in Formula One, and last year’s season irrefutably proved there is no evidence whatsoever Formula One is suffering from anemia or tediousness. A lot of unanswered questions remain, but one thing is certain, if Ecclestone is prepared to personally perform a ten-minute rain dance on the start finish line in front of 600 million TV viewers to ask the gods for rain, he has my blessing. That would really make good television.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 8

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Series GENERAL , F1
Tags commentary, ecclestone, formula one, kubica, pirelli