NASCAR Race Weekend Central

F1 Slipstream Saturday: Whither Lewis Hamilton? The Azerbaijan GP

The Formula 1 season is beginning to roll along as the series makes its way to the streets of Baku for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.  This race is the fourth of the season, which means it stands as a certain marker for performance. That is to say that teams should have shaken down their 2018 cars a bit now to be moving away from whatever gremlins that may compromise their race and be shifting to being able to improve performance – something that goes for both the mechanics and the drivers.

With that in mind, one of the surprising aspects of the season thus far is the results that Lewis Hamilton has earned.  The defending champion seems to be battling both the car and his team, struggling to earn his finishes rather than pacing the track with the typical elan that has tended to manifest itself throughout his career.  

The tone might suggest a doomsday ‘the sky is falling’ sensibility here and that would be hyperbole.  Hamilton has finishes of second, third and fourth. Any number of drivers would be happy to swap out their results for what the ‘struggling’ Hamilton has accumulated.

The metrics on Hamilton suggest he’s not really stumbling as much as one might think.  In his 11 completed seasons in F1, he notched a win by the fourth race in five of them.  In fact, the further the season moves forward the better his results tend to be.

The shock with Hamilton may be the contrast between this year and how dominant Mercedes has been since 2014.  But what is happening appears to be a typical pattern that comes with the difficulty in trying to sustain dominance – just ask Red Bull before them.  

What the opening of the season really portends for Hamilton is that, without a win after four races, he is unlikely to win the championship.  That’s not a forecast as much as it recognizes the statistics in his career.

Odds & Sods

– In mega-important, vital, absolutely crucial news, the United States Grand Prix announced that Bruno Mars and Britney Spears and will headline the weekend.  Mars will be taking the Saturday night shift, performing after qualifying from the day, while Spears takes the post-race slot. The announcement showcases a number of things about the race in the states.

To start, the promoters had begun worrying about attendance after the fourth year of the event, when a significant drop occurred.  To remedy the situation, Taylor Swift was brought in to headline the weekend, a move that did bolster the attendance, especially as the track could promote it as her only public performance of the year, in 2016.  The problem is that they chose Justin Timberlake in 2017 and again experienced a drop.Having two acts perform is thought to be able to provide a continuous lure for the weekend.

The statement that is really being made is that F1 racing in Texas has reached a point of saturation or, even worse, perhaps the U.S. just doesn’t have the fans that the sport hopes.  The counter-argument is that a number of locales are battling the very same issue, which means there’s a good chance that the USGP will be moving off the calendar or to a new venue in the near future.  

– The implementation of the halo device on the cars this year was met with a general disdain or indifference.  The drivers have played kind and kept their mouths shut, offering little in the way of criticism about the measure that is meant to offer them more protection.  

What has been fascinating to watch has been how teams have used the halo for extra advertising space, which means that it has been melded seamlessly into the sport.  This week, the FIA announced that teams could now start attaching mirrors to the halo should they be so inclined, as long as they conform to the standards already established.

Such a decision may come across as small but actually indicates how the sport is embracing and moving ahead with the use of the device.  The halo doesn’t have the same contention at this point, and one can expect it to not even come up in negotiations for the next iteration of the F1 car.

– With a new engine and some positive results, McLaren is getting itchy to return to the podium as seen by their move to ditch Tim Goss as chief technical officer – or, better stated, the person in charge of the chassis and aerodynamics.  Just because Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne have scored some points doesn’t mean that McLaren is happy, and yet the decision is odd.

After years of frustration, shouldn’t there be a little bit of patience as the team works through finally being able to shake down a car that has actual performance?  The switch to Renault is already paying dividends, but the chassis has long been thought to be a strength for McLaren and to sack the person who has been heading that area is a bit surprising.  Sure, McLaren has been accustomed to being near the front of the grid but their current situation looks like a rebuild and they are finally getting results. Why mess with the success?

The Race

Last year the race in Baku held the title of European Grand Prix, but this year it has been changed to be the Azerbaijan GP.   It is one of the few street circuits on the schedule and features some rather interesting environs as the cars whip through, notable what looks almost like a castle turret around turn 8.  The track features 20 turns, and a distance of 3.73 miles, making it the second longest track of the F1 calendar. It is a mix of both the old city and the more modernized one, making it a track of two halves.  Nico Rosberg one the first race on the streets of Baku while Daniel Ricciardo took the win in a chaotic race last year.

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Russ

Think the surprise about Hamilton is that his teammate, Bottas, has outperformed him to date. Suspicions about this being a contract year are out there, but despite the doom and gloom he’s in second place in the points.

As for McLaren they were claiming that they had the best chassis on the grid, the corner speeds were as good as anybody in the field. That the problem was a lack of power which made them slow o the straights. How it appears that the corner speed was because they loaded the car up with downforce. Ths helped corner speed but killed it down the straights. Now they are the slowest of the Renault teams and the chassis is revealed to be the culprit. So heads are beginning to roll. They will get there but its a steep hill to climb.

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