Sunday 28 April 2013

Pirellis, passes and politics: Thoughts on F1 in 2013

F1 is never calm for long. Never totally at ease with itself. And even if it does threaten to go that way it seems to feel obliged to find some aggravation from somewhere. Perhaps they like aggravation; maybe not having it makes them feel exposed somehow.

There are lots of things that are good about F1 right now, on the face of it at least. A close, competitive field. Races which contain a lot of action. One of the best driver line ups ever. Talk of breakaways, and of blocking the rule changes that await in 2014, have receded. But obviously this situation was unsatisfactory. Someone, somewhere had to stir the pot.

And so it has been in early 2013. The main issue has been around the dark matter and equally dark arts of the Pirelli tyres. It seems that some have noticed that the rubber, as Pirelli is deliberately engineering degradation in, doesn't allow drivers to push all the time. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner for one has bemoaned that the drivers don't like 'cruising at 70 per cent for a large percentage of the race', with Mark Webber claiming similarly that F1 is 'a little bit WWF at the moment' (get with it Mark, it's WWE these days).

Once again, there has been
much debate over the Pirelli tyres
Credit: Rich Jones / CC
It is however difficult to see what the fuss is about in a sense, or at the very least why the fuss is taking place now. While the tyres are revised for this year at the topline level they're not much different to those in Pirelli's previous two years as an F1 supplier (as Kimi Raikkonen noted) and, as well as this, in F1 drivers almost never have been able to push at 100% for 100% of the time (as Kimi also noted). Further, the high tide water mark of Turkey 2011 in Pirelli's early days, where it was four stoppers pretty much all round, hasn't been matched in 2013 and the races generally don't seem more variable than those of early 2011 or early 2012. And while the details can be argued (for example, this year's soft tyre was clearly unsuitable for the China track on that particular race day) surely the broad approach is worth supporting. Those who hark back to the 'good old days' when tyres hardly degraded are either suffering from selective memory or else enjoy Sunday afternoons that are akin to watching paint dry. Then, races (and I use that term advisedly) were usually soporific; sometimes farcical.

Thus, all in the approach with the Pirellis is an example of a good regulation: one that makes the races more variable, gives the teams something extra to think about but ultimately is not distortive to which drivers and teams are quick and which are not (a cursory glance at the results of the first three rounds shows that). Purists rail that it's heretical to introduce rules for 'the show', but the show must be considered. F1 isn't simply a technical demonstration, and without wishing to be facetious if no one is prepared to watch the show then the technical exercise won't happen either, as no one would invest time and money in it. And frankly the good ship of F1 purity sailed long ago (indeed, you could argue that it never docked in the first place).

In attempting to explain what's causing the fuss, part of it seemingly is that Red Bull has an idea in its head (and has done for some time) that were it not for the pesky tyres' behaviour it would be running away with every race. That its cars sank on race day in Australia having locked out the front row comfortably seemed to underline this contention. But part of the problem in doing something about it is that for something like this to change mid-season close to unanimity among the teams would have to be achieved, and it seems Red Bull has never managed to get the campaign significantly to be more than about itself. According to the tyre manufacturer, aside from Red Bull and (obviously) Toro Rosso, only Niki Lauda has lobbied for change, and even then it's not clear the extent that Lauda's views reflected those of his team. And perhaps it's understandable: for one thing Red Bull hasn't been winning any popularity awards just lately, related in part to its isolationist position on matters such as cost control. And of course, perhaps more pointedly, no one is going to want to help the Red Bulls be quick. So, suddenly finding itself needing allies Red Bull discovered them hard to come by.

Thus the tyres remains as they are (aside from a 'tweak' to the hard tyre from Barcelona onwards), though some of Pirelli's latest selections have started to look more on the conservative side. The medium, not the soft, was taken to Bahrain, while the Spain and Canada selections look a little more cautious than might have been expected. Red Bull, otherwise, must do a better job in what Jimmy Durante called 'the conditions that prevail'. Or continue to howl at the moon. Your choice, lads.

And no doubt, as has been the case in the past couple of years, once teams get on top of the tyre challenge and races calm down a bit we'll start to complain that the action isn't as much fun as before. In F1, as in many things, people are reluctant to learn from the past and thus it repeats itself.

Elsewhere, there has been an elephant in the room in the shape of the new Concorde Agreement - the document that holds the FIA, FOM (i.e. Bernie/CVC) and the teams together in something resembling a truce - which remains unresolved, and the sport is operating without one for now. This may yet come back to bite us. As might the issue of cost control, with Martin Whitmarsh stating that seven of the 11 teams are in 'survival mode'.

But aside from the Pirellis, the biggest round of agonising and recrimination in this season's young life has been on the subject of team orders. Like the tyre controversy, it was by no means a new debate, but events in early 2013 brought it into sharpened focus. Also like the Pirelli seethe, it is not entirely about, but has been mainly associated with, Red Bull.

Vettel ambushing Webber for the Malaysia
win has caused much debate
Credit: Morio / CC
In the Malaysian race the Red Bulls were running one and two after the final stops, with Mark Webber (due to better timing of an early change to slicks) ahead. And the occupants of the Red Bull pit wall, concerned about fuel consumption, tyre life as well as its two pilots not taking each other out, issued the now notorious 'Multi 21' order, meaning 2 (Mark Webber) should finish ahead of 1 (Sebastian Vettel). Vettel however disregarded the order, and ambushed Webber for the win.

We've always suspected that there are two rather incongruent Sebastian Vettels out there: the friendly, cherubic guy (seen mainly out of the car), and the ruthless, steely, self-centred competitor (mainly seen in the car and, apparently, behind the scenes). But rarely before Malaysia had they come into such open conflict, and when they did it was almost like when devil and angel personas appear above the head of a cartoon character, and engage in hostile dialogue with each other.

As it was, it was devil Seb that forced his way past Webber for the Malaysia win, and celebrated in parc ferme afterwards as if nothing untoward had happened. But after the race angel Seb was back into control and went into overdrive in front of the media: he was sorry, he screwed up...

Come three weeks later as the fraternity next gathered in China when the whole matter had seemed to just about have died down, the devil Seb seemed again to have the whip hand and was determined to open up the old wound, so that could be allowed to fester on his terms. Seb was still sorry that he had put himself above the team, but on the contrary to his Malaysia sentiments he'd do the same again in the same situation, it was payback for Webber's lack of support in the past, and he's there to win races (quite how the first point can coexist peaceably with the other three is beyond my naive understanding, however).

In the end nothing much happened to Vettel, as few expected it to given his status as the talent in the team as well as his closeness to Helmut Marko, who broods in the wings of the Red Bull garage with almost supernatural influence. And thus things in the team for now have continued much as before. But it remains to be seen if there are implications in the medium and longer term. For one thing, if Seb wants to win the title this year he cannot count on support from across the garage (though Seb and his acolytes would argue that they haven't been getting much of that anyway), and more broadly we've seen before how such a conflict can suck the life out of a team generally over time. For another thing, the real distribution of power within the Red Bull outfit looked to be laid bare by the case, with Horner in effect unable to touch the Vettel-Marko axis, even if Horner is openly defied. How sustainable is it for the team principal not to be the principal within the team?

With all this - Red Bull complaining about the tyres and apparently tearing itself apart - and add in the odd uncharacteristic strategy and operational error, you'd be forgiven for assuming on that basis that the team isn't quite ruling the roost in the way we've grown accustomed to in recent times. Not so though. Vettel and Red Bull lead their respective championships, pretty comfortably too. Why is this? Well in part it demonstrates once again that even when not quite au point the Vettel-Red Bull combination remains a formidable foe. But partly it reflects also the inability of its rivals to put a consistent challenge together thus far in 2013.

The Kimi Raikkonen-Lotus combination is
Red Bull's closest challenger in the table
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus are closest on points. It has to a large extent been a direct continuation of last season for them: with the car looking strong particularly on its race-day tyre nursing and Kimi looking both quick and able to finish everywhere. Indeed, after the combo's impressive win in the season's opener in Melbourne some thought they would be prove to be hard to stop in all rounds. It's not quite worked out that way, in part because familiar niggles have reared their head. One is, the characteristics of the E21 may mean that just like last year the drivers have too much to do on race day from lowly grid slots. That was certainly the case in Bahrain, and to an extent in Malaysia too. Further, as was also seen on occasion last campaign, the car can show apparently prodigious pace in Friday practice which can fade when it most matters. That was also so in Bahrain. And while it may sound sacrilegious, Kimi's performances can vary too: his Malaysia race was scrappy while in Bahrain an aggregation of his best qualifying sectors would have been good enough to start fourth rather than his actual slot of ninth (though it became eighth thanks to penalties for others). Still, one suspects that neither driver nor team will be too far away in races and in the championship scrap; contrary to popular belief Enstone's record of in-year development is a good one.

And then there is Ferrari: the red team perhaps appropriately were in advance expected to be the greatest irritant to the Bulls. That may yet be the case, but so far the challenge trails in both tables. In many ways the early part of Ferrari's campaign has been a reverse of that twelve months ago. Now, the car looks right on the pace immediately in contrast to suffering the tricky birth of last year's machine - it has already a dominant win as well as a second place beaten only by strategy - but unlike last year the team is far from making the best of things. Part of it is the intangible quality of luck: the eventual negative consequences of Alonso's tiniest of taps on the back of Vettel in Malaysia seemed disproportionate to the original error, and the failure of DRS in Bahrain had a freak quality about it. But even so the calls from the pitwall in response to each exacerbated the situation, first to stay out in Malaysia with extensive front wing damage as well as advising Alonso it was OK to use his DRS again after the initial problem in Bahrain. Both calls cost points, and they may yet come back to haunt them. And while the Ferraris look like they'll consistently be on the pace hauling back Alonso's 30 point deficit on Vettel will not be the work of a moment. Particularly as the Seb-Red Bull challenge tends to get stronger as the year goes on. Not for nothing Stefano Domenicali is calling for 'perfection' from now on.

There is of course a glaring omission from all of this, the challenge from Woking. Some had McLaren as among the leaders in pre-season testing, particularly after a strong stint by Jenson Button in Jerez. Others reckoned that the McLaren was up there but not quite with the likes of the Red Bull and Lotus. Others, notorious Cassandras of the highest order, ventured that McLaren was in serious trouble. But it turned out they were closest to the mark. The car looked evil in Melbourne - both on track and on lap times - and the bottom end of the top 10 was the very best it could do. In Malaysia and China typically restrained strategies enacted by Jenson at least got him halfway up the top ten, and things got a bit better in Bahrain, with the car looking to be in that vicinity on pace rather than by relying on clever strategy. But the McLarens still weren't troubling the leaders, nor even the podium contenders. We all know that this team has the engineering resource to turn things around and has done exactly that many times before, but nevertheless one rather suspects that even in an extended 19-race campaign that if McLaren ends Friday practice in Barcelona not feeling that its cars are on the pace then a championship charge is probably out of the question already.

Mercedes so far has been a pleasant surprise
Credit: Morio / CC
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton's much-trumpeted switch from McLaren to Mercedes has, while it remains early days, looked much more Jackie Stewart to Matra rather than Emerson Fittipaldi to Copersucar. Despite its management soap opera prior to the opening round, Mercedes has looked to have made a conspicuous on-track forward step this year. One has to be cautious, given there have been false dawns aplenty at Brackley before particularly at the start of campaigns, but no one can deny that the year's start has been an encouraging one. A championship charge probably remains out of reach however, as the evidence is that the balance between qualifying and race pace isn't quite there (in that it tends to be stronger in the former), and that its old vice of chewing rear tyres over a race stint may remain to some extent. That Nico Rosberg sunk disastrously from pole in the Bahrain race suggested this, though by contrast Hamilton's potency got better as that race went on, so the team will be poring over the data to see if it has in fact discovered the answer to its enduring question. Additionally, despite some bad luck and being on the rough end of a team order in Malaysia, Rosberg has given Hamilton a much stronger run than many expected.

More broadly, pre-season had suggested that 2013 would be a lot like 2012, only more so. In fact, it's been a lot like 2012, but a little less. While the order remains close broadly the establishment has reasserted itself somewhat, and the midfield interloper performances seen last campaign have faded for now. Williams and Sauber, two interlopers-in-chief from 2012, have struggled for reasons yet to be satisfactorily explained. Force India has however got it right and has been a conspicuous best of the rest, indeed despite a few problems of its own remains just ahead of McLaren in the standings. Unlike this time last year though there is a conspicuous top three now, not just in teams but also in drivers (Vettel/Red Bull - Raikkonen/Lotus - Alonso/Ferrari). And also unlike last year the top three seems to be holding on a race-by-race basis too. Results such as last year - a win for Williams, a Sauber emerging as the fastest race day car, and genuine run at the front for a Force India - now look a long way away.

And, three championship doubles on, discovering the answer to the enduring question of how to topple the Sebastian Vettel-Red Bull tie-up doesn't appear all that much closer. In spite of not having its troubles to seek it remains on top, and has established an advantage already that you suspect that it hardly needs. In Maranello, Enstone and elsewhere the head scratching will continue. But, despite everything, I wouldn't bet the farm against the Bulls achieving their very own Project Four in 2013.

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