Monday, 13 June 2011

Race Weekend of the Year?

This weekend was unbelievably awesome for motor racing fans, with two high-profile races that will surely go down in history as all-time classics: One of the closest 24-Heures du Mans of recent times, followed by a Canadian Grand Prix that had absolutely everything in it.

Summary - Le Mans 24H
Audi out-qualified Peugeot for the first time since the French manufacturer returned to Le Mans in 2006. It would prove to be no walkover though, with Audi suffering heavily - both emotionally and in terms of the race - with two horrendous crashes involving Ferraris in the slower LM GTE classes knocking them down to one car and leaving two of Audi's nine drivers undergoing checks in hospital. After the Safety Cars had done their bit (with one of them even running low on fuel after staying out for an hour while crash barriers were repaired), the #2 Audi R18 TDI of Marcel Fässler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer became locked in a thirteen-hour fight for the lead of the race with team Peugeot, who still had all three cars at their disposal, which proved handy when former F1 driver Alex Wurz let fatigue get to him mid-morning and put the #7 Peugeot 908 in the gravel at Indianapolis corner, dropping him back a couple of laps. The #9 car of Sebastien Bourdais, Simon Pageneaud and Pedro Lamy became the main challenger, swapping the lead with the Audi at seemingly every pitstop. Alas, Audi Sport Team Joest were so much faster in the pitlane that they soon had more pitstops under their belt than Peugeot. By doing comparatively short stints quickly and then being fast in the pitlane, the Germans had a building advantage over the French, who even tried some dastardly defending tactics with their lapped cars to try holding up the sole remaining Audi. It wouldn't be enough, however, and after 24 hours of racing as fast as they could, the final lap had to be run at full speed rather than cruising across the line to wave at the crowd, as a race that's normally won by 2 or 3 whole laps was won by just under 14 seconds by a triumphant and tearful Andre Lotterer in the #2 Audi Sport Team Joest R18 TDI (13.854 seconds, to be exact).

Similar tension was felt in the Grand Tourisme Endurance (GTE) classes - split into Pro and Am - with Corvette Racing snatching victory from a privately run Ferrari 458 after their other car also crashed out from the class lead in spectacular fashion. In Chevrolet's centenary year, a Corvette won both GTE classes at Le Mans, which is surely very satisfying for them. Equally satisfying for us were the onboard shots of the 'Vettes, as we could listen to their thunderous V8s howling down the Mulsanne straight.

Summary - Formula 1
Four hours after the end of Le Mans, the Formula 1 started its engines in Canada, and at first it didn't look like we would find out weather or not the double-DRS zones were a good idea, as Montréal was soaking wet for much of the race. The race started - slightly controversially - under Safety Car conditions, as the drivers got a feel for the slippery road under their "Extreme Wet" tyres. The AMG SLS, driven expertly as always by Bernd Mayländer, peeled off on lap 4 when the rain stopped to get the race under way properly, and Fernando Alonso immediately challenged pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel in the first corner, but nothing would come of it as they could take no real chances in such wet conditions, as proven by Lewis Hamilton trying to get past Mark Webber at the same corner and tapping the Australian's rear wheel, despite being given plenty of space to pass, spinning Webber round and dropping him way down the order. A couple of laps later, after being squeezed out by Michael Schumacher at the tight Casino Hairpin and dropping behind Jenson Button, Hamilton got a better run out of the last corner than his McLaren team mate and tried to pass him, but misjudged it and got pushed into the wall by Button, who didn't see him, thanks in part to all the spray off the rear tyres, I suspect. Hamilton ground to a halt a few corners later with rear suspension damage and a loose rear wheel, thus bringing out the Safety Car again.

As the track dried out, Button and a few others pitted in for Intermediate tyres just before the Safety Car came out. He also got a drive-thru penalty for speeding under the SC and a damaged front wing from meeting Hamilton. These factors slowly dropped him far down the field, while Kamui Kobayashi climbed 7 places to 6th as everyone dashed into the pits. Then, on lap 19, the heavens opened again and opened wide. All but one of the drivers dove into the pits for wet tyres, allowing Kobayashi to climb even further up to 2nd on the grid before the race was Red Flagged for being too damn wet and the cars lined up on the grid to wait out the storm for what turned out to be over two hours...

In some ways, the Safety Car driver was the real star in this race.
When the race eventually resumed, long after the fans thought they would be home and dry(ing), the Safety Car had prevaricated long enough that everyone needed do change to Intermediate tyres. Jenson Button was the first in, marking his fourth time in the pits (including the penalty). Alonso lost time queuing behind his team mate Felipe Massa for tyres, leaving him in Button's path as he left the pits, and the two came together when Button got the inside line in the first part of the right-left chicane at turn 3/4 and Alonso refused to yield. This put the Ferrari driver in the wall as team mate Massa kept pressure on Kobayashi in 3rd. Button's contact with Alonso gave him a puncture and forced him to pit yet again. Vettel, meanwhile, sat in the lead the entire time, even after pitting. Michael Schumacher capitalised on the restart and overtook a recovering Mark Webber to take 6th position before bring gifted 5th when Force India rookie Paul Di Resta damaged his front wing and pitted for a new one. Then, Kobayashi ran wide at the chicane just before Casino Hairpin and slowed down Massa behind as the Brazilian tried to find a way past the flailing Sauber. This gave Schumacher the opportunity to sneak past the pair of them on the exit as they sorted themselves out, meaning he was now in 2nd place, looking at a podium for the first time since his return last year.

Lotus-Renault GP driver Nick Heidfeld utilised his "Blown Diffuser" system as usual, giving him notably improved traction out of corners in a similar way to Red Bull Racing, but this sent him straight into the back of Kobayashi - whose Sauber does not possess such a system - and caused his front wing to break off at high speed and shoot under the car, picking it up briefly and sending "Quick Nick" flying down the escape road. The resulting debris brought the Safety Car out for what must be a record 5th time in the race. By this point, the drivers had confidently decided to use Super Soft slick tyres, despite water still being on the track (off the racing line), making daring overtaking moves and late braking a slippery risk in the wrong place...

On the final restart, Vettel held off Schumacher - who in his wisdom had kept much closer than Kobayashi did in the previous restart after Vettel launched - and close behind, Webber and Button, who had had an astonishing run thanks to the double DRS zones being activated (meaning he could overtake car after car, lap after lap, as he scythed through the field of slower teams) were looking to improve further. Webber and Schumacher diced for position a few times, with Webber getting the last chicane all wrong on lap 63 and allowing Button to narrowly avoid a fishtailing Red Bull and snatch third, after pitting in a 6th time for dry tyres earlier on and becoming stone dead last. He now had is eyes on Michael Schumacher for 2nd place. He passed him a lap later and started hunting down the remaining German at a hell of a rate. Vettel, who had been relatively conservative on dry tyres - perhaps worrying about going off-line and hitting one of the many close barriers - was caught at a rate of around 2 seconds a lap as Button was setting fastest time after fastest time, at one point beating his own previous lap time by a whole second. With less than 5 laps to go he was on the Red Bull's tail, pressuring him further and further, hoping that the Race Clock (which only allows 2 hours of racing, not including Red Flag periods) would stretch far enough for the whole 70 laps to be completed at this late hour, and so it did. On lap 70 out of 70 he was right on the race leader, looking for a way past, perhaps preparing to lunge at him one last time in the final corner using his DRS and KERS, all the time trying to pressure the unflappable Vettel into a mistake... and then the unflappable Vettel flapped! With less than half a lap to go in the Grand Prix, he missed his braking point, slithered off-line and put the car into a slide when he panicked and stabbed the throttle. Doing well not to spin, it wasn't enough as Button went straight past him and on to victory, even though he had done twice as many pit stops, even though he'd had a penalty and had to fight through from 21st and last position, Jenson Button scored his 10th career victory with pure ecstasy on his face. There was an even closer finish slightly further down the order, as 7th place Felipe Massa used everything he had left to out-drag Kamui Kobayashi on the pit straight to clinch 6th position by just 0.045 seconds!

It took a good long while to get started properly, in fact overall it was the longest F1 race in the sport's history, but then it's like what those Guinness adverts used to say: Good things come to those who wait. Those last 10 laps or so made me feel like an excited little kid again (which is saying something considering I'm still only 19). It was absolutely fantastic! We'll look back on this one like past generations look back on Senna at Monaco or something like that.

There will be further analysis of both these races soon. For now, here are the respective results/points tables:

The 79th 24 Heures Du Mans
Formula 1 - Canadian Grand Prix 2011 (Click to Enlarge)


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