Vettel canters to victory in Canada

Having pulled cleanly away from pole position, led into turn 1 and built up his customary lead of a couple of seconds over the course of the first lap, victory for Sebastian Vettel in Canada was never really in doubt. If you hadn’t known, you never would have guessed that Vettel and his Red Bull Racing team had never won at Montreal. It was a dominant victory. Vettel was never really challenged for the lead and the race might have been a bit of a procession had it not been for the abundance of action behind the leader.

Qualifying only sixth may have cost Alonso the chance to challenge Vettel

Qualifying only sixth may have cost
Alonso the chance to challenge Vettel

Having made little progress early on in the race Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who started in sixth place, really came alive towards the end of the race. Alonso had his customary good first lap, making progress and passing Valtteri Bottas, who had qualified an impressive third in changeable conditions, to be in fifth place by the time he crossed the line to start lap two. However, the Spaniard was unable to make any further progress until lap 30 of the race, which almost certainly cost him any chance to mount a credible challenge for the race win.

Despite his relatively poor showing in qualifying, Alonso had confidently stated before the race that he thought that victory was possible, saying “We start in a position that gives us all the chances to win the race if we are quick enough”. Judging by his pace later in the race, the Ferrari may well have been quick enough, but being trapped, along with Vettel’s Red Bull team mate Mark Webber, behind the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg really cost Alonso.

Webber, who was running in fourth place, finally made his way ahead of Rosberg through the first of the two DRS zones at the Circuit Gilles Villieneuve on lap 30. Alonso followed him straight through and, having saved KERS, utilised KERS and DRS to pass the Mercedes in the second DRS zone; the start/finish straight. It look Alonso another 12 laps to find his way ahead of Webber, which he did, again down the start/finish straight, on lap 42.

Hamilton attempting to re-pass Alonso in Montreal

Hamilton attempting to re-pass Alonso in Montreal

Alonso really came into his own in the last 20 laps or so, hunting down the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton who had been running strongly in second position throughout the race. Hamilton had a lead of around 10 seconds at one point, but Alonso rapidly closed him down, aided by traffic, in particular Adrian Sutil, who received a drive through penalty for ignoring blue flags. Alonso eventually found his way through on lap 63 at his favourite place; the start/finish straight. Hamilton, despite his best efforts was unable to pass Alonso back, but with only seven laps go Alonso did not have time to mount a challenge to Vettel, who had a lead of around 15 seconds.

The aspect of the race that stood out the most for me, though, was the tyres, or more accurately, the lack of extreme degradation. The fact that Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes – the car that has suffered most with tyre degradation this season – was able to run a much longer first stint than many of his rivals, was telling. The Englishman stopped from the lead on lap 19; three laps later than Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso. This might have been partly down to the nature of the track in Montreal; lacking in high speed corners and a relatively smooth surface. This meant that the tyres weren’t stressed quite as hard as they were at Barcelona. I also doubt very much that we’ll see Paul di Resta manage to do a one stop race in round 8 at Silverstone. A 57 lap first stint on the medium compound tyre in Canada was hugely impressive by the Force India driver.

The key point is, though, that we had an exciting race without having tyres that fell apart after a few laps. That surely makes a mockery of the argument we need high degradation tyres in Formula 1. Unfortunately, unless Pirelli’s new tyres, which we expect to be raced at Silverstone, have dramatically different characteristics to the current tyres, we’re likely to see a return to endurance racing at the British grand prix. That’ll be music to the ears of Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen who really struggled at Montreal.

Kimi Raikkonen struggled both in qualifying and the race

Kimi Raikkonen struggled both
in qualifying and the race

Lotus have a car that is probably the kindest on its tyres of all the 2013 generation of Formula 1 machines. That really cost them at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Raikkonen had only managed to qualify in ninth place, but started one place further back after a pit lane infraction in Q2 resulted in a grid penalty for the Finn. Things didn’t improve much for Raikkonen and Lotus in the race, with the 2007 world drivers’ champion only managing a ninth place – one lap down.

This meant that Raikkonen scored a paltry two world championship points, which was particularly damaging to his championship hopes given that championship leader Alonso scored the maximum 25 for his race win and Alonso took 18 for his second place, moving him into second place in the championship, leapfrogging Raikkonen. Indeed, Lewis Hamilton, having taken 15 points for his third place, is now only 11 points adrift of the Finn in the standings.

Lotus have slipped back in the world constructors' championship

Lotus have slipped back in the
world constructors’ championship

The constructors’ championship position won’t make pleasant reading for Raikkonen and Lotus, either. A fifth place finish, and 10 points, for Nico Rosberg added to his team-mate Lewis Hamilton’s 15 points gave Mercedes a 25 point haul from the race in Canada, enabling them to leapfrog Lotus into third in the constructors championship. Indeed, Mercedes obliterated Lotus’s slender three point lead to move 20 points ahead of their rivals, aided by a non-point scoring race from Raikkonen’s team mate Romain Grosjean who finished 13th, having started last following an exceptionally poor showing in qualifying, made worse by a 10 place grid penalty for a crash with Daniel Ricciardo in Monaco.

As I’ve mentioned, though, the tables may well turn again at Silverstone. Lotus are likely to be stronger at a circuit where tyre wear is likely to be an issue again, while Mercedes are likely to suffer. What’s clear, though, is despite Red Bull Racing’s justified complaints about the Pirelli tyres, they’re still the team to beat. Vettel now takes a commanding 36 point lead in the world drivers’ championship, while his team have an even greater 56 point margin in the constructors’ championship.

Unless another team and driver puts a great run of results together and bad luck befalls Vettel and Red Bull Racing it’s hard to see anyone else winning the championships come the end of the season. Still, we’re not even at the halfway point of the season yet. As Murray Walker said, “Anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does”…

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Tyre-d of F1?

The key discussion point among Formula 1 teams, drivers, fans and media in 2013 seems to be tyres. The debate, which started during the course of the 2012 season, is whether Pirelli have got things right with their rubber. There’s barely an expert out there who hasn’t already expressed an opinion; some argue that “Pirelli have done what they’ve been asked to do”, while others think that “this is not real racing”.

Although it might sound contradictory, I actually agree with both statements. For me, it’s not an either or choice between the two extremes. Indeed, I’d argue that the assumption on which the debate is built on – that we need tyres that degrade more quickly in order to spice up the on track action – is a flawed one. Formula 1 can’t take a simplistic view of a problem, as I believe it has done in the past, because the result is likely to be an imperfect solution that could result in further problems. This is precisely the situation that we now find ourselves in.

Fernando Alonso (Renault, Michelin tyres) leads the 2005 Bahrain GP ahead of Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, Bridgestone tyres)

Fernando Alonso (Renault, Michelin tyres) leads
the 2005 Bahrain GP ahead of Michael
Schumacher (Ferrari, Bridgestone tyres)

To fully understand why we now find Formula 1 in a position where drivers are complaining that they can’t push to the limit of their cars for fear of damaging their fragile tyres we need to look at the recent history of tyres in F1. If we look back to 2005, the penultimate season of the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin, we had a situation where tyres had to last the whole race, with no tyre changes allowed during a grand prix (other than because of a puncture, for example). This meant ultra hard and durable tyres and pit-stops only to refuel the car. This resulted in tactical racing driven by fuel strategy.

The one set of tyres per race rule didn’t last beyond the 2005 season, during which we saw the farcical United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, where only the six cars using Bridgestone tyres were able to start the race due to safety concerns relating to the Michelin tyres at the banked turn 13. Michelin only competed in one further season in Formula 1 before withdrawing from the sport at the end of the 2006 season, leaving Bridgestone as the sport’s sole tyre supplier between 2007 and 2010, when the Japanese firm also withdrew from F1.

Refuelling was banned because of incidents like Felipe Massa driving off with the fuel hose still attached at the Singapore GP in 2008

Refuelling was banned because of incidents like
Felipe Massa driving off with the fuel hose still
attached at the Singapore GP in 2008

With Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier the teams effectively got what they were given in terms of tyres. Bridgestone, with no competition, were free to continue to supply durable tyres that produced pretty consistent grip and degraded slowly; a good advertising platform for their road tyres. Unsurprisingly, tyre related pit-stops were few and far between, and refuelling continued to drive tactics and strategy until it was banned from 2010.

This meant that, in Bridgestone’s final year in Formula 1, we had durable tyres, no refuelling, with one pit-stop races very much the norm. As overtaking in Formula 1 was extremely difficult because, for aerodynamic reasons, it was hard for drivers to follow each other closely, we had fairly processional racing. Something had to change, and it did with the arrival of Pirelli as the sports role tyre supplier from the 2011 season.

The DRS system on the 2012 Mercedes W03 By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

The DRS system on the
2012 Mercedes W03

Pirelli entered the sport with a very clear brief: design, build and supply tyres that degrade more quickly and produce more exciting racing. Pirelli have certainly fulfilled that brief, moving the sport away from the situation it experienced with highly durable Bridgestone tyres following the end of the tyre wars. We now generally see two or three pit-stops for all cars during each grand prix and, because of the different car and driver characteristics, tactics and tyre choices, more overtaking. Overtaking was also boosted by the introduction of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) at the start of 2011, which allows drivers who are within a second of the car in front to reduce drag by opening a flap in their rear wing at designated sections of each track, increasing acceleration and top speed.

So, now we find ourselves in a situation where there is overtaking in Formula 1, but that there is criticism that it is too artificial. DRS certainly receives some of this criticism, but the majority of the flack has been aimed at Pirelli. The Italian tyre manufacturer has, in each of the three years it has been supplying F1 tyres, produced rubber with wear characteristics that are more and more extreme, with drivers having to conserve their tyres, not pushing flat-out for fear that the tyres will “fall off the cliff” – a characteristic where the Pirellis simply run out of grip.

What would Michael Schumacher have thought of the 2013 Pirelli tyres?

What would Michael Schumacher
have thought of the 2013 Pirelli tyres?

Last season, seven time world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher described driving on the Pirelli tyres as like driving on “on raw eggs”. He elaborated on this point, explaining that the tyres were, in his view “playing a much too big effect because they are so peaky and so special that they don’t put our cars or ourselves to the limit…I don’t want to stress the tyres at all. Otherwise you just overdo it and you go nowhere”.

The situation is even worse in 2013, with the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, in particular, struggling with some extreme tyre wear. Mercedes are by no means alone in struggling, though, with Red Bull Racing being quite vocal in stating that the Pirelli tyre wear left them unable to show the underlying pace of their car. Indeed, some of the “overtaking” which has resulted from the faster wearing Pirelli rubber is, in fact, artificial given that drivers are not fighting each other for fear that they will ruin their tyres and cost themselves time. When one driver is effectively waved through by another it’s not really overtaking.

So, returning to the point that I made in my opening paragraph we are in a situation where Pirelli has delivered what they’ve been asked to deliver, but in doing so has given us more overtaking, but artificial racing. Pirelli have clearly gone too far with their 2013 tyres, but the Italian manufacturer is an easy target for critics. If you look beyond the obvious and remind yourself of the sport’s recent history – as I’ve tried to do in this article – you can see why we have arrived where we are now. The real blame, however, must lie with Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, which sets the sport’s rules.

Surely it would have been better to continue with more durable tyres and introduce a mandatory number of pit-stops in each race, perhaps during specific parts of the race, as has been done in series like GP2. Drivers could race hard, and there would be a guaranteed number of pit-stops in each race to keep things interesting and create opportunities for strategy to be used to facilitate overtaking through pit stop phases of the race. Although this would address the tyre wear issue, the underlying problem in F1 would be unresolved.

Senior figures like FIA PresidentJean Todt have lots to answer for

Senior figures like FIA President
Jean Todt have lots to answer for

As I’ve already mentioned, the fundamental issue with modern Formula 1 cars: their aerodynamic characteristics do not lend themselves to running closely together, meaning that overtaking is incredibly tough. The FIA has come up with “band aid” solutions like DRS and fast wearing tyres without, in my view, addressing this issue. As a result we have racing that is seen as artificial, Formula 1 drivers that are unable to race and push the limits of their machinery, and ridiculous situations like the Pirelli/Mercedes/Ferrari tyre testing controversy that erupted at the recent Monaco grand prix.

All of this is a turn off for F1 fans. Don’t get me wrong, I still wouldn’t miss a race, but I find myself distinctly underwhelmed by the Formula 1 of 2013. Surely it’s not beyond the technical geniuses of Formula 1 to come up with a properly thought out solution to these issues? In any case, the sport will be undergoing some significant changes in 2014 with the advent of the new turbocharged era. I’m looking forward to the unpredictability that the 2014 regulation change will bring, but I do worry that the underlying issues will remain.

Whatever the case, I can’t help but feel that 2013 will be dominated by tyre controversies. With Pirelli’s contract up for renewal at the end of the season, F1 could find itself in a situation where the Italian manufacturer decides to walk away. The sport would only have itself to blame.