F1 News: Alonso Had No Clutch, Reprimands Not Penalties, and Toro Rosso Sends a Message


What Happens When It’s an Exciting Day

12:02am EST — A few key pieces of information came out of a dry and exciting race in Malaysia (full report here): Alonso had no clutch for the entirety of the race, there were reprimands, but no penalties for Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and the Toro Rosso boys have sent a message.

Alonso Drove the Malaysian GP With No Clutch:
Despite a dramatic engine failure with a lap and a half to go in the race, Fernando Alonso’s drive from nineteenth to nearly ninth has been drawing accolades from fans and critics alike.  While he did not go from twentieth to sixth like McLaren rival Lewis Hamilton or eighteenth to seventh like teammate Felipe Massa, Alonso was fighting his own private, uphill battle.
It was, perhaps, “the hardest race of my whole life in terms of driving,” according to Alonso to the media after the race (as quoted in an Autosport article).  What happened was simple, and a tricky thing to get around, prompting the American commentators at SPEED to discuss his prowess in raptures.  David Hobbs (heard here in a very recent F1B Downshift episode) could only wonder how he was doing it in awe, while Steve Matchett (a Benetton mechanic at the time) likened it to Michael Schumacher’s “nursing of an injured Benetton in, what, 1994?”  Alonso explained what happened,

From the start things went wrong. On the formation lap my gearbox broke and I had no clutch during the race, so I had to brake in a weird way. I had to first gear down and then push the throttle hard so it would engage the gear for that corner. So it was probably the hardest race of my whole life in terms of driving, because I had to improvise for every corner. But even so we were going to get a few points, which in the end was not possible because of the engine. But if the gearbox and then the engine are going to break, it’s better than in happens when you are ninth than when you are leading and you lose 25 points. [emphasis added]

He was prosaic, adding, “A tough weekend. Sometimes it’s us, sometimes it’s other. You have to take the opportunities.”  It was indeed, for team Ferrari, despite Massa’s points (Massa now leads the championship by two points, with Vettel tying Alonso for second with 37 points, though the German is third through a tie-breaker), with a bad call in qualifying knocking their drivers out in Q1 and Alonso’s blown engine.

Drivers on the Stewards’ Panel:
This season, new FIA president Jean Todt instituted a new format for the stewards panel at each race, notably adding an actual driver.  This was meant to help the stewards panel more adequately address any penalties that needed to be made during the race, with fewer instances of penalties that changed the standings post-race.  It was also assumed that previous F1 drivers would be better able to determine what maneuvers fell afoul of the spirit of the rules, presumably having used or attempted them themselves.
For the Malaysian GP, Johnny Herbert filled that position.  Subsequently (and only in chronological order, this is not a post hoc argument of Herbert’s capabilities), Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were served with warnings for behavior on-track.  Hamilton received a warning (and the rarely seen black and white flag for “unsportsmanlike driving”) for his repeated blocking of Vitaly Petrov on the start/finish straight, weaving back and forth multiple times.  Vettel had to visit with the stewards after he passed a slowing Jarno Trulli under a local yellow, but was saved by the fact that he made “a large reduction in speed through the yellow flag area and that he understood that Car 18 was slowing with an obvious problem,” according to an Autosport article. While we have no way of knowing how involved Herbert was in these decisions, not being present with the stewards before or after the race, it does make sense that a driver who has raced in similar instances would be better equipped to make a call on an appropriate punishment or warning.

Toro Rosso Boys Lay Down a Gauntlet:
In this first season not the Red Bull junior team (well, still the Red Bull Junior team, but finally a constructor in their own right), Toro Rosso’s drivers look to have sent a message to the rest of the paddock.  They may not have the fastest cars, they may not have the most experience, but, damn, if they’re not going to be hard to pass.  Granted, it is not easy to pass under the best conditions in F1 lately, but Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi have spent the past two races a thorn in the side (or in front of, as the case may be) some seriously more experienced and widely considered to be more talented drivers.
While much of the media post-Malaysia will (rightly so) be about Sebastian Vettel’s first win of the season, Mark Webber’s very frustrated expression in the post-race press conference, Lewis Hamilton’s masterful drive to sixth and the roadblock that Adrian “faster in a straight line” Sutil’s Force India became for his former junior-league teammate, Fernando Alonso’s blown engine after racing from twentieth to ninth with no clutch, and the proper racing that occurred even in the sun, I think a bit of it should be about those boys in blue and red and gold.  Buemi is on his second full season in Formula1, while Alguersuari is still learning tracks he’s never raced an F1 car at, having come in midway through 2009 to replace Sebastian Bourdais.
In Australia (full race report), it was Alguersuari (Buemi having been punted off by a front wing-less Kamui Kobayashi just after the start) who kept Michael Schumacher behind him until there were less than ten laps to go.  Afterward, Alguersuari noted to the press that he learned a great deal from Schumacher.
Then came an opportunity only a week later to put that knowledge into action.  Alguersuari again spent a good bit of the race in Malaysia (full race report) in front of a Mercedes-powered silver car driven by a world champion.  This time, it was Lewis Hamilton, who desperately needed around the Spaniard to keep the Ferraris behind.  Hamilton had, after a bit of a dice, gotten around Buemi who would later put up a strong fight for position over the most experienced man on the grid: Rubens Barrichello.  While Hamilton did pass Alguersuari, it wasn’t without a fight, and young Jaime proved to be the same sort of problem for both Massa and Alonso.
While Buemi has yet to score a point this season, and Alguersuari only two, it is clear that Toro Rosso is not fighting for dominance.  What is clear, though, is that these young drivers are coming into their own, and won’t be held up by or overly kind to anyone attempting to get past them.

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