The wrong formula

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely that you’re a Formula 1 fan.  A fan of thrilling racing, overtaking, battles for the lead and the championship.  A fan of motorsport at it’s very best.  That’s what F1 is all about, after all; it’s the pinnacle of motorsport.  Or, at least, that’s what it should be.

Vettel takes the chequered flag at the Circuit of the Americas

Vettel takes the chequered flag
at the Circuit of the Americas

Sadly, Formula 1 has become increasingly dull.  At the weekend we saw the now four time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, take his eighth consecutive victory.  As usual, he was pretty much unchallenged at the front and the win was comprehensive and straightforward.  As usual, we heard team radio messages to various drivers urging them to conserve their Pirelli tyres.  Yes, that’s right, team radio telling drivers not to push to the maximum for fear that they might wear out their tyres.  The overtaking that we did see either happened at the start or was largely achieved with the assistance of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid. Is this really what we want racing to be like at the pinnacle of the sport?

I should be clear that none of this is Vettel’s fault.  He’s clearly a great driver, who has the privilege of driving cars that have been the class of the field for the last four years.  Indeed, but for the Brawn double diffuser in 2009, there’s little doubt that Vettel and Red Bull Racing would have won five consecutive world drivers’ and constructors’ championships.  No doubt, future generations will look at the record books and marvel at the German’s achievements.  No doubt, his fans love his complete dominance of Formula 1.  For the rest of us, though, be we supporters of other drivers, or just fans of great racing, Vettel’s dominance is a real turn off.  What’s the point of watching a race when the outcome is all but certain?

An example of a coanda exhuast on Jenson Button's McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

An example of a coanda exhaust on Jenson
Button’s McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

The change in regulations in 2014 brings with it a huge opportunity for F1 to become exciting again.  Non-Vettel/Red Bull fans are living in the hope that other teams and drivers will raise their games for 2014, and that the absence of the exhaust technology that Red Bull has mastered will level the playing field somewhat.  I very much hope that it does, but even then there are other things that need to be addressed, chief among them the Pirelli tyres.

Again, I should preface my comments by saying that I don’t think the Pirelli are solely to blame for the problems that we’re now seeing.  They must, though, shoulder some blame.  When Pirelli entered F1 in 2011 they were asked to make tyres that degraded more rapidly than the Bridgestone rubber that had been used previously.  Typically races run on Bridgestone’s during the time that they were the sole tyre supplier, following the banning of refuelling, were one stop races, lacking in much excitement.  Then the Canadian grand prix of 2010 came along, with multiple tyre stops as the rubber degraded more quickly, we had an exciting and tough to predict race.  “This is the answer” thought the FIA, “faster wearing tyres produce better racing”.  So that’s what Pirelli were asked to produce.

Pirelli's 2013 range of tyres

Pirelli’s 2013 range of tyres

And that’s what Pirelli have produced.  I would argue that they have taken their brief too far, but they have certainly done what the FIA asked them to do, and with very limited testing, too.  What the FIA didn’t consider, though, was that rapidly degrading rubber is fine when it’s not the norm.  When it’s unexpected it will produce racing that’s exciting.  The problem is, though, that everyone knows that the tyres wear out quickly.  So, instead of pushing their cars and themselves to the limits – as they should be doing at the pinnacle of motorsport – they concern themselves with not overstressing their tyres.  They’re not pushing hard.  They’re not driving on the limit.  They are protecting their tyres to try to achieve the optimum race strategy.

As a result, we don’t see much exciting wheel to wheel racing.  There are no race long battles for the lead.  Formula 1 in 2013 has become what the FIA had hoped to avoid – dull and uninteresting.  If the FIA wants races with multiple pit stops it would be far better to have harder wearing tyres – tyres that drivers can really stress and push to the limit on – and mandatory pit stops.  That would be better from a marketing point of view for the tyre manufacturer, and better for the sport.

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

F1 is not really helped by DRS, the other big change, along with Pirelli tyres, at the start of 2011.  DRS, to be fair, does help overtaking by reducing drag.  As you probably know, it can only be used at set points at each track and only when a car is within a second of the car ahead of it at a set detection point.  The problem with it is that it’s completely artificial.

We’ve become so used to DRS now, though.  I find myself watching a DRS assisted pass during races and thinking, “great pass” or “good move” when it’s anything more than someone just driving past someone else in the middle of a straight.  These aren’t great passes, though.  They are manufactured and artificial.  A far cry from the truly great overtaking manoeuvres of the past that we now see fewer and fewer of.

As I’ve written about previously, instead of dreaming up devices to artificially boost overtaking, the FIA need to concern themselves with addressing the aerodynamic rules that make it difficult for Formula 1 cars to follow each other closely.  Resolve that, introduce mandatory pit stops and request harder wearing tyres, and we might see Formula 1 racing that’s exciting again.

Of course, not much can be done if one team or driver is just better than the rest, as we’ve seen over the past few seasons with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing.  As I’ve said, it’s up to others to raise their game to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in 2014.  They need some help from the rule-makers, though.

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

At the moment, the FIA have got the balance completely wrong.  And when you add the ridiculousness of the driver market into the equation, the situation looks even bleaker.  Increasingly, teams need drivers to pay their way, rather than earning their drives on the basis of talent alone.  There are a few exceptions to that rule, most notably McLaren’s recent promotion of Kevin Magnussen to a race seat in 2014, but others aren’t as lucky.  The best example at the current time is Nico Hulkenberg.  It looks increasingly likely that the talented German will be overlooked for a leading drive at Lotus because of his lack of sponsorship cash.  Hulkenberg has performed wonders whichever team he has driven for in the past, but that’s not enough nowadays.

Instead it looks likely that the Lotus drive will go to Pastor Maldonado and his bucket-load of PVDSA sponsorship.  The Venezuelan is quick on his day, but crash-prone, erratic and prone to red mist.  As we saw in Austin, he’s also petulant and a poor loser.  Certainly not a driver that’s worthy of  one of the top drives in F1.  Indeed, but for his sponsorship money I doubt he would have ever secured a drive in Formula 1.

I’m not sure what can be done about the rise of the pay driver in F1 but this, together with the lacklustre on track action does not make for a healthy sport.  This is not the right formula for success.  As they’d say in Star Trek, the F1 of 2013 “is Formula 1, Jim, but not as we know it”.  Nor as we want it to be.

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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.

Shoddy tyres fail to spoil the Silverstone spectacle

Well, after 52 laps of the British grand prix we saw a second win of the season for Mercedes.  Considering that the Silver Arrows locked out the front row of the grid after qualifying on Saturday this was perhaps not a massive surprise, but the fact that it was Nico Rosberg rather than pole sitter Lewis Hamilton who took victory was a bit of a disappointment for the home fans.

Lewis Hamilton limping back to the bits after his tyre deflation

Lewis Hamilton limping back to
the pits after his tyre deflation

Indeed, in the opening laps of the race it looked like Hamilton was in complete control while Rosberg had slipped from second to third, behind Sebastian Vettel.  The first seven laps went perfectly for Hamilton.  Having started brilliantly from pole position, he gradually increased his lead over the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel to around two seconds at the start of lap eight.  For reasons outside of Hamilton’s or his team’s control, though, disaster struck for the Englishman as he made his way down the Wellington straight on lap eight.  His left rear tyre suddenly deflated, forcing him to crawl back to the pits as the field streamed passed.  Hamilton rejoined in last place.

Given the tyre issues from earlier in the season and the recent furore over the Pirelli/Mercedes tyre test at Barcelona, one tyre failure in the race at Silverstone would perhaps not have been a massive talking point, especially given that it occurred on a Mercedes; the team that have suffered most with tyre wear this season.  However, the fact that the failure occurred just eight laps into the race – early in the race, where degradation wouldn’t have been a big factor – might have served as an indicator of what was to come for other drivers.

By the time all 52 laps had been completed we had seen not one, not two, but four left rear Pirelli tyre failures, plus a failure on the front left of Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber.  Just three laps after Hamilton’s incident, the Ferrari of Felipe Massa was sent spinning off the track after another rapid tyre deflation.  Like Hamilton, the Brazilian rejoined the track and managed to trundle slowly back to the pits for a new set of rubber.

There goes another one! Vergne's tyre explodes at the end of the straight

There goes another one! Vergne’s
tyre explodes at the end of the straight

As I mentioned, though, there were four left rear tyre failures.  Number three arrived just a few laps after Massa’s and this time the debris on the circuit led to the safety car being deployed.  This time it was the Toro Rosso of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne that was serenely making its way down the Wellington straight when his tyre suddenly exploded.  It could have been worse as the safety car allowed race leader Sebastian Vettel, and many others, to pit and change tyres.  We soon heard on Mark Webber’s team radio that Vettel’s left rear tyre was also cut; there would certainly have been a tyre failure on his car had it not been for the safety car.

As it turned out, we didn’t see another tyre failure until lap 46 of the race.  This time, it was the McLaren of Sergio Perez which had a left rear tyre explode going down the Wellington straight.  This came immediately after the race restarted following the retirement of the leading Red Bull of reigning world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel.  Luck had been on Vettel’s side with Hamilton’s tyre failure and his own non-tyre failure earlier in the race, but luck had deserted the German in the closing stages of the race as his Red Bull ground to a halt with transmission failure, allowing the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg to take a lead that he never relinquished, despite some heavy late pressure from the second Red Bull of Mark Webber, who recovered brilliantly after a dreadful start which saw him drop down to 15th after being sideswiped by Romain Grosjean’s Lotus at turn 1.

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Fernando Alonso on his way to a third place finish

Another two drivers who recovered brilliantly were Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.  Despite the former driving with a badly damaged car following his tyre failure, by the end of the race the 2008 world driver’s champion managed to fight his way back up to fourth place, narrowly missing out on a podium finish.   It was Alonso who took the final podium position behind Rosberg and Webber, though, with a thrilling late surge which saw him pass a number of cars, including the McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez – in the case of the latter, just as his tyre was exploding – and the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen.  A stunning drive from the Spaniard after his poor showing in Saturday qualifying and a lacklustre start to the race.

We mustn’t forget the race winner, though.  Nico Rosberg’s third career victory was merely a footnote in the post race coverage.  The German’s victory was perhaps a little fortunate, given the early tyre problem for his team-mate Lewis Hamilton and the retirement of Sebastian Vettel.  Rosberg even survived a post race visit to the stewards for failing to slow for yellow flags, receiving just a reprimand and showing that his luck was well and truly in.  Lucky or not, though, it’s hard to begrudge Rosberg his second win of the season.

All of the attention was, unfortunately, on the Pirelli tyres, though.  A number of the drivers were heavily critical of the Italian manufacturer after the race.  Hamilton called the situation “unacceptable”, saying that “safety is the biggest issue…Someone could’ve crashed. I was thinking behind the safety car that it’s only when someone gets hurt that something will be done about it”.  Perez, Button and Massa were similarly critical, while Alonso dismissed speculation that the kerbs were in any way to blame.

Jean Tody has acted quickly to call Wednesday's meeting in Paris

Jean Todt has acted quickly to call
Wednesday’s meeting in Germany

The consensus seemed to be that something needed to be done, and quickly.  To their credit, the FIA have acted quickly:  FIA President Jean Todt has called an emergency meeting of Sporting Working Group on Wednesday.  The meeting, at the Nurburgring, will include Pirelli and representatives of all 11 Formula 1 teams and one solution could be the introduction of the tyres that Mercedes had tested at Barcelona.

Whether that comes in time for the next race in Germany is doubtful, though.  What is certain, though, is that Mercedes head in to the remainder of the season with a car that finally seems to have solved its race pace problems.  They’ve now moved into second place in the world constructors’ championship and will be looking forward to challenging for more victories, starting at the Nurburgring on Sunday.

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”…

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.