Bianchi

When the Japanese Grand Prix was red-flagged, I was chatting with my family. We were discussing the results of the Latvian parliamentary election held on the previous day as I had lost any interest to follow the misery that was the Japanese Grand Prix. Some laps earlier, I had concluded that this was the worst race of the season.

The biggest frustration before Bianchi’s crash was watching the race start behind the safety car. Everybody knew the weather forecast. Everybody expected this to happen. No one did anything to prevent it by changing the start time to Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. Suzuka is one of the best circuits in the world but the race was turned into a tragic mockery and no one had done anything to try to avoid it.

What happened after October 5 did not bring any relief either and I am not talking only about the lack of good news from the hospital as we at least new that Bianchi was alive. What F1 needed was an encouragement, a reminder why risking drivers’ lives every other weekend is not worthless. What F1 got was a Putin Grand Prix and Bianchi’s team going into administration.

So why do talented F1 drivers put their lives on the line? To give the likes of Putin more exposure and wait for either the downfall of their teams or a notice that they have been replaced by a big pay cheque because the wealthiest sport in the world cannot get its act together? It is sad to think that Bianchi would have been forced to race for Putin a week after the Japanese GP, then sit out the rest of the year and settle for a reserve driver role in 2015 if he had escaped that horrendous crash.

Right after the crash, I was angry at those in charge of F1 and the particular race. I did not agree with those, who were claiming that the risk of death was part of the thrill in F1. I wanted to know more details of the crash; I did not agree with those, who said that the FIA would take care of everything and that the others just had to shut up. I am not a tabloid reader but I had many questions and I wanted to hear answers.

I have to admit that the FIA’s report gave a lot of those answers. Still, it is too obvious that one of its objectives is to cover the FIA’s butts. The report recommends changing many rules, yet it refuses to admit that any of the current rules, safety standards or practices in F1 is incomplete or wrong, which is absurd.

I agree that it is always easier to point the finger at someone with the benefit of hindsight but let us not forget that some people are paid to make sure that F1 is as safe as possible. It is their daily job to evaluate the potential risks and look for solutions. If we do not demand responsibility from them, then what is the difference between F1 and Putin’s Russia where stuff happens all the time but the leader is never wrong?

I do not think that saying that Bianchi was driving too fast under double waved yellow flags is wrong or disrespectful. We should never be afraid to hear the truth. The problem is that it is not the whole truth and half-truths are usually not a good way to start making things better. Still I hope that F1 will be able to learn from what happened at Suzuka even if the authorities refuse to openly admit their mistakes.

Coincidentally, I watched “1: Life on the Limit” just a couple of days before the Japanese GP. One of the final scenes of the movie is a compilation of scary crashes that drivers survived unscathed. It is deceiving. One should not believe that F1 is now safe enough and the focus should be on the things that still have to be improved.

I still believe that Bianchi’s accident was avoidable. Even if it was not, the authorities did not do enough to try to avoid it and the aftermath of the Japanese GP leaves a lot to be desired.

Now, two months after that dark day, Bianchi is in his home country, no longer in the artificial coma, breathing unaided but still unconscious. It is what it is. All we can do is send our best wishes to Bianchi’s family, hope and pray for him.

I really enjoyed watching the 2014 F1 season but to me this year will always have two sides. On the one side, there are Hamilton and Rosberg battling wheel-to-wheel. On the other side, there are the dark clouds over Suzuka and F1.

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Heikki Kovalainen’s top 10 F1 races

Just like a year ago, Heikki Kovalainen is without a contract for the upcoming season and his chances to stay in F1 are unclear. The last two races at Lotus as replacement for Kimi Raikkonen were rather difficult. His only option for 2014 seems to be Caterham but he faces competition from several other drivers, who can offer some sponsorship.

At times like this it’s perhaps easy to forget the many brilliant drives that Kovalainen has delivered for every team he has driven for. Here is a recap of his greatest races.

2007 Canadian Grand Prix – 4th

The 2007 F1 season had not started well for the Finnish rookie. The pressure to deliver was high as he had replaced none less than Fernando Alonso at the Renault team. However, the car was not nearly as competitive as in the team’s championship years and Kovalainen’s own performances also were not good enough in the first races of the year.

The first two days of the Canadian Grand Prix did not suggest that this weekend would be any better as Kovalainen crashed twice during free practice and qualifying. Moreover, he was forced to start last after a massive engine failure in the third practice.

But a chaotic race, which included four safety car periods, and an inspired drive by Kovalainen resulted into an excellent fourth place finish. “I seemed to spend a lot of the afternoon overtaking other cars, but we had changed the set-up before qualifying to give me better straightline speed and that definitely paid off,” admitted Kovalainen after the race.

2007 United States Grand Prix – 5th

Just one week later, Kovalainen delivered an even stronger performance. Having qualified a strong sixth, he overtook Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen at the start and even shortly led the race before his first pit stop.

Kovalainen was not able to keep Raikkonen behind during the pit stops but he gained one place when Nick Heidfeld retired because of a hydraulics problem. „This was another strong result for me, and I am starting to get some good momentum now,” said Kovalainen.

2007 Japanese Grand Prix – 2nd

Already before the Japanese Grand Prix, Kovalainen had established himself as the leading driver in the team against Giancarlo Fisichella. He had recorded six consecutive points finishes (points were awarded to the top eight then) but the best was yet to come.

Just like Canada, this was another chaotic race. The rainy conditions forced the race control to start it behind a safety car. There were spins, collisions and crashes all over the field. Alonso crashed out of the race and so did Mark Webber as Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of the Red Bull during the second safety car period. On a day when almost everyone seemed to be making mistakes under very tricky conditions, Kovalainen did not put a foot wrong. He ran a very long first stint and briefly led the race again.

In the final laps, Raikkonen had caught his compatriot but couldn’t find a way past. „I think this was a good way to do it: in difficult conditions, at a tricky race, fighting all the way to the end and beating Ferrari in a straight fight. I am very happy with my race,” Kovalainen summed up his performance.

2008 Malaysian Grand Prix – 3rd

Kovalainen’s McLaren stint was not a success and he could not challenge Lewis Hamilton, his phenomenal team mate, often enough. But the start of his relationship with the team was actually very promising.

In the previous race, the Australian Grand Prix, the Finn had been denied of a well-deserved podium finish by an untimely safety car period. In Malaysia, the qualifying was far from perfect as he earned a five place grid penalty for blocking Heidfeld and Alonso. Still, he was 8th on the grid, having outqualified Hamilton.

The race day went much better. Kovalainen made up one place at the start and climbed up to fourth at the first stops. Felipe Massa’s retirement let him score his maiden podium for McLaren.

2008 Hungarian Grand Prix – 1st

There were several races in 2008 where Kovalainen could have been in the hunt for victory but misfortune often played its part. For instance, he had to start from the pit lane at Monaco after the car’s engine had stalled on the grid and Raikkonen’s front wing punctured Kovalainen’s left rear tyre at the start of the Turkish Grand Prix.

In Hungary, he finally nailed it. Kovalainen was second on the grid but Felipe Massa made an excellent start, overtaking both McLarens and leaving the Finn third. After Hamilton got a puncture and Massa suffered an engine failure, Kovalainen was there to take the lead.

It is true that Kovalainen lucked into his maiden (and so far only) F1 victory. But it is also undeniable that it was only a fair compensation for all the times when the car or some circumstances let him down. “It could have happened in many other races, there was always an opportunity but it didn’t happen,” he said.

2010 Chinese Grand Prix – 14th

When the new Lotus team joined the grid, the expectations were understandably low and even finishing a race was considered to be a success. After all, the team had been started from a scratch only a few months ago and with a tiny budget.

But already the fourth race of the season offered them an opportunity to beat one of the established teams and Kovalainen grabbed it. He had qualified behind Jarno Trulli, his new team mate, but stayed out on dry tyres when a lot of drivers made the wrong decision to switch to intermediates.

Kovalainen even ran sixth at one point. He inevitably slipped down the order later but still managed to finish nine seconds ahead of Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg. It was a nice reward for a faultless drive under difficult conditions.

2010 Canadian Grand Prix – 16th

Kovalainen managed to outqualify his team mate and the other “new guys” and was only two tenths behind Sauber’s Kamui Kobayshi. He ran as high as 10th before the first pit stops and managed to keep Vitaly Petrov behind for nine laps at the end of the race, even though the Renault driver had fresher tyres and Robert Kubica’s pace suggested that the Renault could go up to five seconds a lap quicker than the Lotus.

Even though that wasn’t his highest finish of the season (Kovalainen finished 12th in Japan a few months later), it was probably the most eye-catching performance of the year. “It’s been a great weekend, and I’m really pleased for the whole team with the result today. We finished ahead of Petrov and lapped the other new guys,” said a happy Kovalainen after the race.

2011 Chinese Grand Prix – 16th

2011 was probably Lotus/Caterham’s best year. The team was convincingly ahead of both other new teams, managed to annoy the established competitors now and then and there was a lot of optimism within the team.

The Chinese Grand Prix marked the first time Lotus managed to beat two midfield cars. As usual, Kovalainen outqualified Trulli and the increased air temperatures on Sunday as well as a clever two-stop strategy helped him finish ahead of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado and Sauber’s Sergio Perez.

Kovalainen was overwhelmed by the result: “That is our best ever performance. It’s not the highest place we’ve had but today we beat two midfield cars in a straight fight so I am very happy, with my performance and the performance of the whole team.”

2011 Korean Grand Prix – 14th

After a qualifying lap that Kovalainen himself had described as the best of the year, he made a great start from 19th and was already 15th at turn two. He was unable to keep the quicker cars behind in the first stint but a well-executed strategy helped him finish ahead of both Saubers and just a fraction behind Renault’s Bruno Senna.

Kovalainen believed it was the team’s strongest ever race: “We knew there were a few cars ahead who would struggle to get to the end, and if I’d had another half a lap I would have passed Senna for sure. As it was we finished ahead of both Saubers on pace and strategy and that’s a very good feeling.”

2012 Monaco Grand Prix – 13th

It was obvious that Caterham could not meet their own expectations in 2012. The team was still unable to fight with the established teams or battle for points finishes and beating Marussia and HRT was the only satisfaction it could get.

Still, the season had its highlights and the Monaco Grand Prix was one of them. Kovalainen made a good start from 18th and got ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button. Despite his best efforts, Button was unable to overtake the Caterham. The pit stops did not change anything and both drivers made contact as Button tried to pass the Finn on lap 71. Button’s front right tyre got punctured and he was forced to retire, while Kovalainen had to pit for a new front wing after another clash with Sergio Perez but still managed to finish 13th.

“When Heikki passed Jenson out of the pits, that was definitely the most exciting moment in my Formula 1 career and something that I will remember forever,” said Caterham boss Tony Fernandes after the race.

Why I was a Schumacher fan

Why do people become fans of particular sportsmen? It isn’t a question that’s easy to answer and the fans themselves often won’t be able to give you a credible answer. When I started to watch F1 during the final stages of the 1996 season, I was 12 years old. I immediately became a Schumacher fan and stayed one until his first retirement in 2006. Looking back at that time, I can identify several reasons why that happened.

Firstly, the nationality certainly played an important role. Schumacher was German, I had been to Germany a couple of times until 1996 and I was totally in love with the country, it was paradise on earth for me. I loved everything that was German, how could I not love the country’s greatest F1 driver ever? So I think that the nationality of a driver isn’t unimportant although that doesn’t mean that one will always support his own compatriot(s).

Secondly, I’ve always supported underdogs. Who doesn’t like underdogs, after all? It’s easy to forget after Schumacher domination in the first half of the noughties that until then he was considered to be a superior driver in below-par machinery, a true fighter, who brought the car to the top even if it had no business being there.

Thirdly, he was one of the most visible drivers. I don’t need a driver to be popular or successful to like / love him today but a new fan (or a less active / less informed fan) is unlikely to look at the likes of Chilton and van der Garde. Successful drivers, who get a lot of media coverage, will always have more fans than those, who race in midfield or at the back.

Fourthly, I often read German F1 magazines and watched F1 on a German TV channel since 2000. Until 2009, the German media was my main source of information and “Schumi” was in the centre of their attention, just like Vettel is now. I have no doubt that this vast amount of (mainly) positive information helped keep my love for Schumacher alive. As far as I can tell, the British media are more neutral although I’m sure that Hamilton, Button and di Resta still get more of their attention than the rest of the drivers. Anyway, I think the influence of media should never be underrated.

Has the new social media changed how fans see the drivers today? It certainly has. I think that mostly drivers’ tweets, diaries or blog articles just strengthen the image that they have created on the track and during interviews. My feeling is that this would be the case if Schumacher had a Twitter account. But there are exceptions, such as Fernando Alonso’s samurai quotes and tweets that are friendlier than most people probably would have expected. There are always things that we wouldn’t know about our heroes if not for the social media.

Interestingly, I wasn’t a Schumacher fan after his return to F1 in 2010 anymore. I still find it hard to realise that the guy driving for Mercedes was the same Schumacher, who once dominated F1 in a Ferrari. Perhaps I had just closed the chapter and “moved on” (I had already become a passionate Heikki Kovalainen fan by then already). Maybe I felt that coming back wasn’t the right thing to do for him, couldn’t accept that he wasn’t winning or beating his team mate anymore or it’s just that the British media that I had switched to in the meantime didn’t praise him as much. I’m not sure what the main reason was but the love just wasn’t there anymore. The only certain conclusion here is that a fan can change his preferences; it’s not always “until death do us part”.

There can be many other reasons why people are fans of certain racing drivers, such as their physical attractiveness or one’s ability to associate himself with the driver (which didn’t matter to me in case of Schumacher). We often hear the question “Who is your favourite driver?” but why do we so rarely ask “Why is he your favourite driver?”?