Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon stroll in Sochi

It was a day of milestones for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team in Russia. A ninth victory of 2014 meant that Hamilton is now on 31 career Formula 1 victories, moving level with Nigel Mansell and becoming the joint leading British F1 driver of all time. Hamilton’s race win and the 25 world championship points that come with it was also enough to give the Silver Arrows their first ever world constructors championship, even without the additional 18 points the team got for Nico Rosberg’s second place finish.

Despite the beautiful setting in Sochi, and an excellent track, the race itself was pretty uneventful, and certainly one of the least exciting of the season so far. The reasons for that were probably fourfold. Firstly, Rosberg’s mistake going into the braking zone at turn two on the opening lap meant that the two Mercedes drivers would be separated for the duration of the race.

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn
two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg and Hamilton both started well, but the long run down to the turn two braking zone allowed the German to slipstream his team-mate and squeeze up the inside. Rosberg, however, left his braking much too late, severely locking his tyres, running straight on into the asphalt on the outside of the corner. Although Rosberg swept into the lead, he had done so by running off track and gaining an advantage. Not only did he have to hand Hamilton back the lead of the race, but he compromised his entire race by having to stop at the end of the opening lap for new tyres because of the severe vibration caused by his turn two lock up.

So, on lap two the two Mercedes couldn’t have been further apart, with Hamilton leading and Rosberg right at the very back of the field. This leads me on to the second reason that the race was so uneventful; the track surface and tyre compounds. Amazingly, Rosberg was able to complete the remaining 52 laps of the race on the set of medium compound tyres that he put on at his first pit stop. Not only that, but he was able to fight back through the field to finish in second place.

Rosberg was able to do this primarily because Pirelli – like everyone else going to the Russian grand prix at a brand new track for the first time – had been rightly conservative in their choice of tyre compounds, choosing to bring the soft and medium compounds to Sochi. As it turned out, though, the track surface was very smooth and unabrasive. We saw clear evidence of this in free practice and qualifying, with drivers able to run multiple laps on the same tyre and continue to improve their lap time.

For virtually everyone, this meant that the race would be an easy one stop race, cutting down the opportunity for teams to try something different with strategy to move themselves forward. That coupled with tyres that were incredibly consistent meant that wheel to wheel battles were severely limited in Russia.

Thirdly, surprisingly, there was no safety car to close up the field. Having watched the GP2 and GP3 races at Sochi, a safety car looked all but certain in the F1 race. That was because, after the awful accident experienced by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi last week at Suzuka, race officials were understandably being extra cautious to deploy the safety car when cars were stopped on the track. This, coupled with the face that the Sochi track is a street circuit, which can make the recovery of crashed or stopped cars more difficult, meant that a safety car looked likely, as we saw in the support series races.

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

However, there were simply no incidents at Sochi. No cars stopped on track and there were no crashes. The closest we came was on lap 32 when Lotus driver Romain Grosjean pitched Adrian Sutil’s Sauber into a spin at turn two. The former received a penalty for the incident from race stewards, while the latter succeeded in keeping his car out of the crash barriers and was able to safely rejoin the race.

Finally, despite Williams showing some great qualifying pace, the Grove-based squad were simply unable to compete on race pace with their Brackley-based counterparts. With Rosberg out of contention for victory, Hamilton’s closest challenger was Valtteri Bottas in the Williams for much of the race. While Bottas was able to stick reasonably close to Hamilton over the first 15 laps or so of the race, the Englishman was in cruise control mode. We saw clear evidence of Hamilton lifting and coasting fairly early on and continuing to put in fastest laps of the race.

Hamilton crosses the line to take one of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Hamilton crosses the line to take one
of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Gradually the gap began to stretch into the double digits, with Hamilton never close to unleashing the full potential of his W05 Hybrid. The bottom line is that the Mercedes is simply too good. Reliability issues aside, the team have done a fabulous job in adapting best to the new regulations, delivering not only the class leading power unit, but a chassis and aerodynamic package that compliments that power unit perfectly. Hamilton’s stroll and Rosberg’s fight back through the field, in different ways, demonstrated that equally well.

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their first F1 world constructors' championship

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their
first F1 world constructors’ championship

Mercedes can be rightly proud of their first ever Formula 1 world constructors’ championship. Despite the cloud that still hangs over the sport in the wake of Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka it is right that the Silver Arrows take the time to enjoy this historic moment. The Frenchman is still very much in everyone’s thoughts, though, while he remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

While the constructors’ championship has been wrapped up three races early, the drivers’ championship is still very much alive. After winning four races in a row for the second time this season, Hamilton’s points lead over Rosberg now stands at 17; the largest that it’s been all season. However, with 25 points for a race win, and double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg still has every chance of beating his team-mate to the drivers’ crown. To do that, though, he’ll need to end Hamilton’s terrific run of momentum.

Reliability, seemingly the only Achilles heel of the Silver Arrows team in 2014, may still have a decisive role to play in deciding the drivers’ championship. Mercedes, and their two drivers, will hope that it’s decided on track in a straight fight, however. Formula 1 fans will certainly want that, too.

Pitlane to podium for Hamilton in Hungary

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

A dejected looking Lewis Hamilton walks away
from his smoking Mercedes in qualifying

After another dreadful qualifying session for Lewis Hamilton in 2014, the Briton looked certain to lose even more ground to Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg in the fight for the world drivers’ championship. Hamilton failed to set a time in Saturday qualifying, after a fuel leak on his Mercedes caused a huge fire putting Hamilton out and giving his Mercedes team a gigantic task to rebuild a car that was almost a total loss.

In contrast, as we’ve seen so many times this season, Rosberg had a trouble-free qualifying session. The German cruised to pole position by around half a second from the Red Bull Racing of Sebastian Vettel. It looked very much set fair for another win for the world drivers’ championship leader.

Sadly for Rosberg, though, the weather certainly wasn’t set fair. A huge downpour around 40 minutes before the start of the race threw a spanner in the works and added a huge amount of spice into the race mix. Nevertheless, though, Hamilton started the race in the worst possible position – the pitlane – and Rosberg in the very best starting spot. It would need a mighty drive from Hamilton, and some of the luck that had been so sorely missing from his season so far, if he was not to fall further behind in the championship race.

The race didn't start well for Hamilton, either, as he spun on the opening lap

The race didn’t start well for Hamilton,
either, as he spun on the opening lap

It certainly looked like luck was against Hamilton in the opening laps. The 2008 world drivers’ champion spun on the very first lap, on just the second corner of his race. Hamilton scraped the barrier, but crucially didn’t cause much damage to his car. Rosberg meanwhile, serenely streaked clear in the lead of the race. By lap eight, though, Hamilton had clawed his way up to 13th position, ahead of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, and then the safety car came out after Marcus Ericsson slammed his Caterham into the wall at turn three – a 20G impact.

Not only did the safety car wipe out Rosberg’s substantial lead over the second placed Williams of Valtteri Bottas, but it fell at an awful time for the German. Rosberg was unable to pit immediately as he’d already passed the pitlane meaning he, as well as Bottas, Vettel and Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari all had to do another lap while the rest of the field streamed in to change from intermediate tyres to, for the most part, soft option slick tyres.

Still, though, Rosberg was in fourth position while Hamilton was 13th as the restart was further delayed by Romain Grosjean crashing his Lotus with the safety car about to release the cars. All was not well with Rosberg, however. Smoke was coming from the left rear brake on his Mercedes and as the race restarted on lap 14 Rosberg fell like a stone.

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Perez climbs from his wrecked Force India

Hamilton on the other hand, was going very much in the opposite direction. By lap 17 the two Mercedes cars were running fifth and seventh, with just the Red Bull of Vettel separating the two Silver Arrows. Another safety car came out on lap 23, however, as Sergio Perez slammed his Force India into the pit wall after spinning coming out of the final turn.

As the safety car came in on lap 27, Alonso led, while Rosberg was up to third and Hamilton fifth. There was no further progress for either driver until Rosberg pitted on lap 33. Almost immediately, Sebastian Vettel had an almost identical accident to Sergio Perez, but managing not to hit the pit wall as he spun out of the final corner. That let Hamilton through and straight onto the back of the out of position Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, who had done a tremendous job to hold up Rosberg before the latter pitted.

He couldn’t do the same up against Lewis Hamilton, though, with the Englishman executing the pass of the race on lap 34 to pass the Frenchman around the outside of turn four. Hamilton was now second, with Rosberg 13th, but moving swiftly back up the field after his pit stop. Crucially, though, Hamilton was now a full pit stop ahead of his team-mate. When he eventually made his second stop on lap 40 – from the lead – and fitted the slower, but more durable medium compound slick tyres, we was able to emerge ahead of his team-mate in fifth position.

Rosberg was able to close up to Hamilton, but not close enough to make an overtaking manoeuvre. The team-mates were on different strategies. Rosberg was on the fast option tyres and due to stop once more, while Hamilton was on primes and due to run until the end of the race. Hamilton was asked by the team to let his team-mate through, but Rosberg was simply not close enough and Hamilton was unwilling to lose a significant amount of time to wave his championship rival through.

Ultimately, the decision to put Hamilton on an alternate strategy cost both him and Rosberg the chance to win the race. Hamilton was unable to close in on Alonso and Rosberg was unable to pass Hamilton, with Daniel Ricciardo leading the race by a significant distance from the Spaniard. Ricciardo pitted again for Fresh option on lap 54, rejoining behind Rosberg, with the latter making the same change on lap 56, emerging in seventh.

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo battled for victory in the closing laps

Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo
battled for Victory in the closing laps

Alonso – on soft option tyres – led from Hamilton, but Ricciardo was closing rapidly on them both with his new rubber. Similarly Rosberg was catching the leaders at an alarming rate on his fresh tyres, but it was Ricciardo who was in the best position to win the race, and he duly did.

First of all he moved ahead of Hamilton around the outside of turn two on lap 67 and just a lap later overtook Alonso in turn one. The Australian was gone, but Rosberg was now on Hamilton’s tail. The Englishman was just able to hold his team-mate off to claim the final podium position and reduce the championship deficit to 11 points. An almost unthinkable result after their contrasting fortunes in qualifying.

It was Ricciardo who took his second win of the season, though. The Australian will be hugely satisfied with his performances at Red Bull, which have put his four-time world championship winning team-mate, Vettel, in the shade. As we head into the mid-season break, though, it’s Rosberg with the championship lead, albeit slightly reduced. Hamilton, though, may well think that the luck may now be turning in his favour.

Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

Four-midable Vettel clinches the title in India

It’s a case of another race, another win, and in this case another world drivers’ championship for Sebastian Vettel.  Aside from the championship speculation the tyres had once again been a major talking point in India and there was some hope that the different strategies used would result in an exciting and unpredictable race.  Unfortunately, that never really developed.

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

With Vettel starting on pole on soft tyres that only lasted a handful of laps and his Red Bull Racing team-mate starting in fourth on the harder compound, sandwiching the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton – both of whom were, like Vettel, starting on soft tyres – there was a fair degree of uncertainty about which of the Red Bulls would come out on top.  In pure timing terms, Webber’s strategy was theoretically around two seconds faster over the course of the race.  Added to this, Vettel’s strategy meant that he would have to overtake lots of cars as he came back through the field after stopping early to switch to the harder tyre.  A great opportunity for Webber, it seemed.

What can you do? Webber walks back to the pits after retiring with an alternator failure

What can you do? Webber walks back to the
pits after retiring with an alternator failure

Although, as expected, Webber did lead in India – breaking Vettel’s 100% record of laps led at the Buddh International Circuit – such was Vettel’s speed in getting through slower traffic that Webber never really stood a chance.  Ultimately, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Webber had been Vettel’s equal in speed terms in India.  Another failure on his car, this time an alternator meant that he retired from the race 20 laps from the end on lap 40.

While Vettel and Red Bull Racing made their strategy work perfectly by gearing their car aggressively so that the 26-year-old German was able to pass cars with relative ease, Mercedes certainly didn’t.  In the end, though, it was a good day for the Silver Arrows; Rosberg’s second place and Hamilton’s sixth place finish enabled them to leapfrog Ferrari into second in the world constructors’ championship, which Red Bull also took in India.

The Mercedes team-mates pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes team-mates
pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes drivers would never have been able to compete with Vettel for victory in India, but it was very telling that both of their drivers struggled badly to overtake cars after pitting.  Vettel made it look easy, but Mercedes were just not fast enough down the straights.  This meant that, having been overtaken by the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap, both drivers were then stuck behind him for most of the race.  Rosberg made his way back ahead of the Brazilian using an undercut strategy at the second round of pit stops, but Hamilton, who stopped on the same lap as Massa, was unable to do likewise.

Despite outscoring both Ferrari and Lotus in India, Mercedes have to ask themselves some serious questions.  Having started both cars on the soft tyre, the team would have known that they would have needed to overtake slower cars that started on the harder compound.  Why they then decided to set their car up in a manner that did not facilitate overtaking is a mystery for me.  We saw Hamilton, for example, stuck behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas – which Vettel managed to breeze passed easily – for a number of laps at one stage of the race.

Ultimately, though, Mercedes did well to negotiate Rosberg ahead of Massa.  This, coupled with a disastrous race for Fernando Alonso, who finished down in 11th place, unable to add to his record 1571 world championship points, meant that the Brackley based team moved ahead of the Scuderia in the constructors championship.

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

Lotus also did well to recover from a disastrous qualifying for Romain Grosjean to outscore Ferrari in India, meaning that it remains very much a three-way fight for that coveted second position in the constructors’ championship.  Having badly misjudged things in qualifying meaning that Grosjean failed to make it out of Q1, starting down in 17th position, things looked bleak for Lotus at the start of the race.  The Frenchman drove brilliantly, though, to take a place on the podium with a third place finish.  Kimi Raikkonen’s seventh place finish certainly wasn’t quite as inspiring as he tried, and failed, to make a one stop strategy work.  He did, though, at least have the satisfaction of snatching the fastest lap of the race away from Vettel on fresh tyres at the end of the race.

The final word goes to Vettel, though.  A fourth consecutive Formula 1 world drivers’ championship at the age of 26 is certainly an amazing achievement.  It does, though, make things a little dull for those that are not Vettel supporters.  Vettel’s dominance, and the extreme role that tyre strategy is playing in modern Formula 1, is certainly dulling the spectacle.  Radio messages such as the one from McLaren to Sergio Perez telling him not to fight Vettel due to their different strategies seem incompatible with the concept of racing, especially in a championship that’s meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport.

There’s hope that with a big regulation change coming next year, we may well see things mixed up a little in 2014.  One thing’s for sure, though, if Red Bull Racing build another world-beating car, it’s all but certain to be world drivers’ championship number five for Vettel in 2014.  I don’t know about you, but I find that an incredible depressing thought…

Safety concerns overshadow another Vettel victory in Korea

So, four wins in a row in 2013 and three wins in a row in Korea for Sebastian Vettel.  To be honest it never really looked in doubt after the German got away cleanly from pole position and pulled out an immediate gap to the cars behind him.  With Fernando Alonso only managing sixth place for Ferrari, Vettel now has a 77 point lead at the top of the world drivers’ championship.  A fifth straight win in Japan next weekend could see him wrap up a fourth straight championship, if Alonso fails to finish in eighth place or better.

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

You’ve got to congratulate Vettel on his win.  Since the summer break he has simply been untouchable and his rivals will be left scratching their heads to come up with an answer to his continued dominance of the sport.  As good as Vettel’s performances are, though, there will always be a question about how much of his speed is down to the German himself, and how much down to the Red Bull car, and its designer Adrian Newey.

Whatever the case, Vettel and his Red Bull seem to be in perfect harmony at the moment.  It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of race spectacles, but that’s not something that Vettel and his team will be too concerned about.  At least in Korea, the gap between the reigning world drivers’ champion and the rest was much closer than it had been two weeks ago in Singapore.  There was also more action further down the field and some standout performances from other drivers.

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside of his team-mate to take second position

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside
of his team-mate to take second position

Both Lotus drivers drove extremely well in Korea.  Romain Grosjean had been fast all weekend and followed up his third place starting position with third in the race.  He would have been slightly disappointed not to have taken second position, having done wonderfully at the start to pass Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the run down to turn three on the opening lap.  That disappointment will be magnified by the fact that it was his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, who beat him to second place.  The Finn took advantage of a small mistake by Grosjean after a safety car period, to dive ahead of the Frenchman into turn one.  A great drive from Raikkonen from a ninth place start, highlighting what a good acquisition he’ll be for Ferrari next year.

Ironically, perhaps, the other standout performance in Korea came from the man who Raikkonen pipped to the Ferrari seat.  Nico Hulkenberg scored points for the third race in a row for Sauber.  He followed up his excellent fifth place in Monza two races ago with a brilliant fourth place in Korea.  The German maximised the performance of his car to hold off Fernando Alonso at certain stages of the race while taking advantage of his car’s superior straightline speed as the race was restarted after a safety car period to pass Hamilton on lap 37 and, crucially, stay ahead of him over the remaining laps.  Hulkenberg is certainly doing all he can to secure the seat vacated by Raikkonen at Lotus for next season.

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after
failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

As good as the performances of the top four were in Korea, the race was somewhat overshadowed by three safety related incidents.  The first of these came on lap 28.  Nico Rosberg had been catching his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton hand over fist over the preceding laps as the Briton suffered with a badly degraded right front tyre.  While Mercedes inexplicably left Hamilton on track, Rosberg made his move in the DRS zone on the run down to turn three.  As the German pulled alongside his team-mate his front wing failed and sparks flew under the car as he made his way back to the pits.  Mercedes will certainly be concerned at the failure which, had the wing become completely detached, could have caused a serious incident for both of their cars.

Rosberg’s front wing failure was, perhaps, the least serious of the three safety incidents.  The next came on lap 31.  Sergio Perez, following a big lock up into turn one, was making his way down the straight on the approach to turn three when his right front tyre on his McLaren failed completely.  The tyre delaminated, causing a puncture for Mark Webber who ran over the debris and brought out the first of two safety cars.  While Pirelli will undoubtedly point to the age of the tyre – Perez had been on that set of tyres for over twenty laps – and the huge lock up as the cause of the delamination, we’re once again left with some question marks over the tyres currently used in Formula one.

In the run up to the race, Fernando Alonso had heavily criticised the Pirelli tyres, calling into question the quality of the product that Pirelli are producing.  The Spaniard is particularly worried about tyre durability, stating “We are getting used to these tyres that cannot last one lap”, going on to label the tyres as “not normal”, explaining that “If you push, you finish the tyres”.  The pre race response from Pirelli was robust, with their motorsport director Paul Hembery calling Alonso’s comments “disappointing and below the standards you would expect from such a champion”.

After yet another race where tyre degradation was once again the overriding factor in the race, you can’t help but think that Alonso has a point.  In Korea it was the right front tyre that was the limiting factor.  Aside from Perez’s total tyre failure, we heard Lewis Hamilton complaining bitterly about his tyres over team radio and numerous other team radio messages between other teams and drivers concerning right front tyre wear.

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race
in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Mark Webber added his criticism of the tyres to Alonso’s after the race in Korea, saying “Pirelli will put the puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there’s no tread left”.  He also highlighted the overriding role that tyre wear is having in modern Formula one results by saying that “The drivers aren’t super important”.  With Pirelli now confirmed as the Formula 1 tyre supplier for 2014, we’ll have to wait to see if they change their approach to tyre construction.  I personally hope that they do.

While, Perez’s tyre failure was concerning, though, the tyre situation has certainly improved from earlier in the season, with the low point being at the British grand prix where there were multiple failures.  Indeed, in Korea the tyres were not the biggest safety concern.  That came on lap 38.  Adrian Sutil spun and hit Mark Webber’s Red Bull at the hairpin, bursting an oil radiator on the Australian’s car.  This caused a fire, the second in two races on Webber’s car, and as the Red Bull was engulfed in flames a fire safety truck was released to deal with the inferno, but bizarrely BEFORE the deployment of the safety car.  As it turned out, the FIA had expected that the fire truck from turn three, where Webber’s car was ablaze, would be used, but instead the truck from turn one was called into action, which we saw making its way down the main straight with a train of F1 cars closing in.  The safety car was then deployed, but had the turn three truck been used, we might not even have needed the second safety car at all.

The situation was certainly a strange one, and one the Formula 1 one bosses will not be keen to see repeated.  I’m sure that procedures will be re-examined and tightened as a result, but that won’t be of too much concern to Sebastian Vettel.  The German is all but certain to take the world drivers’ championship yet again.

Frustration at Ferrari

After losing out on the world drivers’ and constructors championships to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in 2012, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari made a strong start to 2013, winning two of the opening five rounds of the season. However, more recently things have been going less well for the Scuderia. The first race after the summer break – at Spa at the end of this month – may well determine how quickly Ferrari shift their resources to their 2014 car.

So, what has gone wrong at Ferrari? I think that there are a number of issues, the biggest of which is that the team seem unable to develop the F138 to keep pace with their rivals. This is not a new problem for Ferrari – we saw the same problems with the development of last year’s car – but it is one that they seem no closer to solving.

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore Gp in 2009; one of two races he won that year for McLaren

Lewis Hamilton at the Singapore GP in 2009;
one of two races he won that year for McLaren

As teams, drivers, media and fans know, development is vital in F1. Starting the season with an uncompetitive car isn’t the end of the world if you can improve it more rapidly than your competitors. An excellent example of that is McLaren’s 2009 season, during which Lewis Hamilton won two races, despite neither car finishing higher than fourth in the first nine races of the 17 race season. Knowing the importance of development is not the same as being able to develop the car, however.

Alonso revealed at the last race in Hungary that the F138 is currently in the same specification that Alonso drove to victory in Spain, some five races earlier. This isn’t because Ferrari, have been lazy, of course. The team has been bringing new parts to races – like the new diffuser that they brought to the Hungaroring – fitting them to the car, only to find that they fail to bring the expected improvements to performance. Wind tunnel and simulation data are failing to accurately predict real world performance – a massive issue.

Vergne's tyre exploding at the British GP

Vergne’s tyre exploding at the British GP

If their development problems weren’t bad enough, Ferrari seemed to have been affected badly by the change in Pirelli’s tyre construction. Following a number of unsightly and dangerous tyre delaminations earlier in the season, the Italian tyre manufacturer was criticised by a number of teams, but Ferrari were not among them. Despite calls to change the tyre construction, the teams couldn’t agree to the switch. This all changed after the British grand prix, though. The multiple tyre failures that we saw in that race forced an immediate reaction and just a couple of rounds later – at the last race in Budapest – we saw the 2013 tyre compounds paired with the 2012 tyre construction to address the problems. Essentially, this meant a switch from steel belted tyres to tyres with Kevlar belts.

The change in tyre construction means that heat is better dissipated by the tyre, rather than retained in the steel belt. This, of course, will benefit teams that suffer from high thermal degradation of their tyres, most notably Mercedes who won the race through Lewis Hamilton in Hungary. Teams that haven’t struggled to the same extent with tyre degradation issues are likely to be disadvantaged, though. We saw Force India struggle at the Hungaroring, with Ferrari also suffering.

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada, but raced strongly, finishing second

Alonso qualified sixth in Canada,
but raced strongly, finishing second

Ferrari have had issues in qualifying this season and have only had a single front row start in 2013; for Felipe Massa in round two in Malaysia. Conversely, though, their race pace has been extremely strong, with Alonso, in particular, able to move forward rapidly on Sundays. This is likely down to car characteristics, with the F138 struggling to heat its tyres and bring them into ‘the window’ of operating efficiency for a single qualifying lap, but looking after the same tyres well on race day. The change in the construction of the tyres means, though, that the help in heating the rubber that Ferrari would have received from the steel banded tyres has disappeared. As we saw at the Hungaroring, Ferrari’s race pace was disappointing, with Alonso finishing where he started in fifth place – aided by the difficulties suffered by Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean – while Massa dropped one place from his starting position to finish eighth in the race.

As we saw from Lotus’s performance in Hungary, though, it is certainly possible for a team that enjoyed the steel belted tyres to perform equally strongly with the Kevlar belted construction. Lotus is a team that have been extremely good on tyre wear, and might have expected to struggle with a tyre that dissipates heat more rapidly. This wasn’t the case in Hungary, though, with Raikkonen benefitting from a two stop strategy to finish second, while Grosjean can count himself unlucky to have finished sixth, after receiving two penalties from the stewards. Some of Lotus’s strong performance on the Kevlar tyres might be attributable to the high heat at the Hungaroring, but Force India and Ferrari suffered in the same conditions, so there’s almost certainly something that these two teams can learn from Lotus.

The second of two almost identical crashes for Massa in Monaco

The second of two almost identical
crashes for Massa in Monaco

The final issue for Ferrari is their drivers. After a strong start to the season Massa is now starting to struggle quite badly. A poor start to 2012 saw heavy speculation that the Brazilian would be replaced at Ferrari for 2013, but a strong end to the season saw him retain his seat and an even stronger start to 2013 seemed to have dispelled any doubts about Massa at Ferrari. A run of five crashes over the course of four grands prix weekends – Monaco (twice), Canada, Britain and Germany, where he spun out on lap four – has reignited the speculation over the 32 year old’s future at Ferrari, though.

Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo has gone from being supportive of Massa, saying last month that “Felipe is fully aware he can count on our total confidence in him” to saying more recently “in the past days, we were very clear with him: both he and us need results and points. Then, at some point, we will look one another in the eye and decide what to do”. Fernando Alonso has not been immune from criticism, either. Recent speculation has linked the Spaniard to Mark Webber’s seat at Red Bull Racing, with the reaction from Ferrari being whispers about Alonso failing to get the best out of the car in qualifying and Di Montezemolo publicly rebuking the double world driver’s champion.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, Ferrari’s form at the Belgian grand prix at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps may well prove crucial to determining where the team focuses its resources; the F138 or the 2014 challenger. I expect that a lack of improvements will see 2013 being sacrificed in favour of next year’s car. With James Allison joining Ferrari as technical director next month, this may well be the plan at Maranello in any case.

It is crucial that, whatever they decide to do, the team pulls together and avoids a sustained period of destructive speculation surrounding their drivers. With silly season just getting started that might be easier said than done, however. It looks like it could be a challenging second half of the season for Ferrari.