Curly’s Corner: 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
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Red Bull’s Inevitabile Problem Finally Happens
This was coming. It wasn’t a matter of if Max Verstappen’s signature move would cause a crash, but when. It was also a matter of time before he and Daniel Ricciardo would finally be battling for position and come to blows on the track. Back when we first started looking at F1 on MotoIQ (the 2017 Malaysian GP), I pointed out how much I disliked Max’s driving style. His method of defending is incredibly dirty and dangerous. Personally, I think blocking in racing needs to be cracked down on hard, whether it’s F1, NASCAR, or anything else, blocking needs to start going away. It’s unsafe, it’s unsportsmanlike, and it’s just plain unnecessary. When racing was very unsafe, there was no blocking rule: you knew that if you chopped off another car you could get put into the wall and hurt, maimed, or killed. Nobody wanted that. As racing has become safer, drivers have gotten bolder and the latest uncomfortable trend is being set by Max. His signature block is to dart across the nose of the attacking car in the braking zone. There’s no reserve grip for swerving, and in aero-heavy cars like Formula 1 racers, when you suddenly cut across the nose of the other car, you take away all the air and downforce, effectively removing a substantial portion of the grip of the rear car. The result is exactly what happened to Ricciardo and Verstappen. Ricciardo had a run and had a look to the inside. Max blocked. Ricciardo went to the outside and Max followed. Ricciardo went back inside, Max waited a moment, then cut back across and by that time they were already in the braking zone. With no front downforce and nowhere to go, Ricciardo slammed on the brakes, but locked up and ran over his teammate. It’s pretty clear from the various angles, that Ricciardo got boxed out and tried not to hit his teammate. Check out the rear-view shot and notice how much the car squats as he stands on the brakes.
Ricciardo’s run-up to Max was almost identical to his other pass attempts (including his successful pass on Lap 36), but by Lap 40, Max was ready to counter the attack. Unfortunately, Max’s zeal to keep his teammate behind him put them both out of the race. In the latter half of 2017, it seemed like Max had finally calmed down a touch, just enough to keep him in the hunt for wins and not putting himself into bad situations. 2018 has been a regression. He has been involved in accidents in every race of the new season and now he’s been involved in an incident with his teammate. Red Bull has stood behind him publicly (as they should), but behind closed doors they really need to get him under control. It is quite likely Verstappen will get more and more desperate as the season goes on and perform riskier moves, as a desperate driver is wont to do. Verstappen has had a hand in taking out his teammate twice in less than a year. If it happens again and Red Bull doesn’t chastise their young star, Daniel Ricciardo will certainly be ringing up other teams for 2019.
The Quiet Samurai Strikes Again
Fernando Alonso’s 2018 season started off rather inauspiciously. First, he had signed on to run the 24 Hours of Daytona for Zac Brown’s United Autosport team. Then, Alonso joined up with Toyota to not only run the 24 Hours of LeMans, but the entire 2018 WEC season! With no conflicting dates, this is doable, but means Alonso has multiple strings of back to back races, sometimes on opposite ends of the globe. In F1 though, McLaren’s MCL33 hasn’t been challenging for top spots like McLaren thought it would and they have still faced a few reliability problems. While 2018 is a bit of a “building” year, McLaren has also been bullish about their prospects every season. It’s a bit embarrassing to go back and look at some of the pre-season team statements the team has made over the last 5 seasons, especially towards the end of the Ron Dennis era.
Yet somehow, Alonso has drug that car right up the grid. 5th in Australia was the high water mark, but 7th in Bahrain, China, and now Azerbaijan, show that the car is consistently better. More importantly, it shows that Alonso is as good as ever. Take nothing away from Stoffel Vandoorne, but Alonso has been manhandling his McLaren as high as it can go. The proof is in the points: Alonso has scored three times what Vandoorne has. Right now I’m sure some of you are ready to drop into the comments and say “Well duh Curly, Alonso is a two-time world champion after all,” but consider the fact that up until Interlagos, the penultimate race of 2017, Stoffel Vandoorne was outscoring Fernando Alonso. Alonso has never been beaten by his own teammate and Vandoorne damn near did it in his rookie year. Stoffel is effing quick, so the fact that Alonso is already this far ahead is a testament to just how hard the Spaniard is working to get himself back into the mix.
Want further proof of Alonso’s determination to get back to the sharp end of the grid? Just look at his performance in Baku. 7th seems pretty average considering the results of Bahrain and China, but utterly stunning when you consider Alonso effectively started Baku in last place. Remember, he was involved in the Lap 1 shunt with Sergey Sirotkin and Nico Hulkenberg and had to limp around half the track with two flat tires. At one point, it looked like Alonso would DNF, yet with nothing more than a wing change and fresh Pirelli shoes, he fought his way well into the points.