Friday, 25 March 2011

Melbourne Preview: As you were...

Nothing like a bit of watching F1 to blow away the cobwebs.

And despite everything, all the speculation, all the various changes and associated language of the apocalypse, at the outset of the 2011 campaign what's most remarkable is how little has changed since the end of last year. Red Bull still appear to be leading the way, followed by the Ferraris (well, one of them at least), the McLarens, the Mercs (not necessarily in that order), then a gap to midfield. And the Pirellis don't seem to be nearly as bad as some had been predicting.

Indeed, alongside the Pirellis doing a bit better than thought, the big news of practice so far is that reports of McLaren's death have been greatly exaggerated. With a 'bolt on and go' technical upgrade, including dropping a troublesome (and complex) 'octopus' exhaust system for a more standard set-up, the cars look both better handling and much more reliable than was in the case in testing. Indeed, Jenson and Lewis topped the FP2 timesheets (in that order), and their long-run pace also looked impressive.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply, it was only a practice session, different cars will be running different programmes (and there's reason to think the Red Bulls and possibly the Ferraris didn't fully show their hands - indeed Vettel got within 0.16s of Button's best, and Jenson reckons he didn't use his Drag Reduction System [DRS] in so doing). But it seems at the very least McLaren have saved themselves the ignominy of running in the midfield, and are comfortably within the top four teams. That they have made such progress this quickly is indeed impressive, even by their standards.

Elsewhere, it appears, on the evidence so far, that Renault may be part of, rather than at the head of, the midfield pack (and did you notice that the TV graphics described them as 'Renault' and not 'Lotus'? Dany Bahar will not be pleased).

As mentioned, the Pirellis held up longer than anticipated/feared (indeed, there were some reasons to think in advance this would be the case in a race weekend), though it may also be a characteristic in part of the relatively-easy-on-tyres Melbourne track. Button did 29 laps on a set of primes in the first practice session, and Red Bull and Mercedes also did impressive long runs in the afternoon, each with relatively little tyre wear drop-off. It seems that 2-3 stops may be the ballpark for Sunday, rather than four or more. On the flipside, tyre 'chunking' (a phrase that I thought had been left in the 1970s), where chunks of rubber are torn off the tyres as they're used, was evident throughout much of the field, most notably on Vettel's car.

There's nevertheless still every reason to think to think that tyres, and the associated strategy, will be key differentiators this year. Indeed, even qualifying won't tell us everything, as with the tyre wear being such a variable there is not anything like the direct 'feed-in' from qualifying to the race as we've grown used to in recent years. Alonso for one has said that teams will have to feel their way to a large extent on race-day strategy in Melbourne, and Ross Brawn, who knows about such things, commented that in Sunday's race 'it's quite possible that faster cars can be beaten by the sharper team'. The dilema facing the teams is clear, undercutting rivals by pitting earlier could result in several positions gained, but on the other hand you'll then need to run on those tyres longer. Button reckons that on Sunday 'In the closing stages I think there is going to be a huge amount of overtaking'. What's more, Button has said of the tyres that 'When they go, they go dramatically and without warning'. Even a lap on bad tyres could lose a driver 5-6 seconds, and many positions, to their rivals.

And before I finish a couple of gripes. One minor and one major. The minor one is that for the last half hour of FP2 drivers are only permitted to use their DRS in race spec (i.e. when close behind another car). It therefore makes sense to do race simulations only from this point, meaning the top of the timesheets are rather 'set' from that point, depriving us watching of the usual crescendo as cars go quicker right up to the end of the session. Would it not make more sense to have the race spec DRS in the first half hour of the session?

And the major gripe is that, for the second year in a row, HRT's preparations for the opening race were frankly pathetic. They spent most of the first two practice sessions assembling their cars, then not yet ready to run, and in total across the two sessions only getting in one installation lap for Liuzzi at the very end of FP2.

Yes, running an F1 team should be hard, but F1 is also meant to be the best and if you're not up to running a team you should go to a formula that is more suited to you. It's not too much to ask surely that they have cars ready for the first event? It's not as if they didn't have enough notice, and remember that they had an unexpected extra two weeks to prepare, what with the Bahrain round being postponed. It was cringeworthy to see live TV footage of the cars being assembled, upwards of an hour into the second practice session, while their drivers hung around with admirable patience. No wonder Bernie wants to cap the number of F1 teams at ten.



And highlights of FP2, also courtesy of the BBC

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