Perhaps at some level it reflects a generation brought up on the refuelling era and little overtaking, wherein the order set in qualifying would go a long way to dictating the order come the end of the race. Or else perhaps it reflects that in recent times, with parc ferme after qualifying, 'feed in' from qualifying to the race has been much more direct than was once the case.
But nothing is new in F1. Nor is 'what F1 is about' nearly as pure or as simple as the anti-Pirelli brigade often imply. The phenomenon Mercedes has been experiencing recently is not unheard of: there are plenty of examples from history of those with a much stronger qualifying than race-day knack, and for a variety of reasons. Here are five examples.
Chris Amon, 1968
Mention the name of Chris Amon to a historically-minded F1 fan and the response you'd get probably is 'the best F1 driver never to win a Grand Prix'. Or else - in a related fashion - mention of his legendary ill-luck. The tags sell Amon short however. This is partly because his talent is such that he should be remembered as being an excellent driver, regardless of the lack of wins. And it also sells him short as there was a season that, with the odd card or two falling his way, the championship could have been his. That year was 1968.
|Chris Amon, some years later|
Credit: Lothar Spurzem / CC
How did this happen? Well, it was down to a variety of things: unrelated reliability, the odd freak occurrence, and even the weather conspired against Amon on occasion. But, as was the story for Amon's F1 career more broadly it all could be filed under a peculiar concentration of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
As 1968 dawned there was little doubt that the Lotus 49s with their Ford Cosworth DFV V8 engines were going to be the ones to beat. This was bad news for Ferrari, whose V12 unit was left breathless by the Cosworth. Worse for Ferrari and Amon, Ford had decided to make the Cosworth unit available for sale to other F1 teams, meaning it wasn't just the Lotus leaving the Ferrari on the straights. Fortunately though the Ferrari 312 did have one thing going for it: its chassis was an excellent one. 'Funny, really, when you think that Ferraris usually have lots of power and lousy chassis' mused Amon later.
Amon started the year quietly, with a subdued fourth place in South Africa. But in the subsequent four and a half months (yes, you read that right) before race two everything changed. Most significantly and tragically, championship favourite and driver of the age Jim Clark was killed in an F2 race. Also, Ferrari in subsequent non-championship races appeared to sort its pace out. And in that second Grand Epreuve, around the tortuous Jarama track in Spain which could have been designed for the 312, Amon took pole and disappeared in the race. Then his fuel pump failed.
And this was to be a portent of his frustrating season. In Belgium at fearsome Spa Ferrari was an aerodynamic innovator and turned up with cars kitted out with front and rear wings, and Amon qualified four seconds clear of the rest, and again led on race day. But then on lap two at the legendary Masta Kink he encountered a limping McLaren driven by Jo Bonnier on the racing line. He had to back right out of it, which allowed John Surtees's Honda to slipstream past him. And not long afterwards one of Surtees's wheels flicked up a stone which holed Amon's oil radiator, putting him out. At Brands Hatch Amon finished, but was unable to clear Jo Siffert's Cosworth-powered privately-entered Lotus and thus had to settle for second. At Monza Amon ran with the leaders, before hydraulic fluid from the Ferrari's movable rear wing (yes, DRS isn't entirely new) leaked onto his rear wheels and sent him into a violent accident that to this day no one is clear how he managed to walk away from. And it was all topped off in Canada, wherein Amon again disappeared into the distance and looked all set to break his win duck finally, but from early on Amon's clutch had failed, forcing him to change gear without it. And with only 18 of the 90 laps remaining his final drive pinion, by now toothless, would take no more.
As mentioned there was also the weather. Three races in 1968's summer - amounting to a quarter of the season - were run in wet conditions, and in all cases cost Amon possible wins. Rain didn't suit the characteristics of the Ferrari engine, while the Scuderia's Firestone tyres were not a match in such circumstances for the Dunlops used by some of its rivals. Perhaps unfairly too, some reckoned Amon wasn't the best wet-weather driver. Whatever the case, from these three rounds Amon scored but a single point.
And if all this wasn't enough there was the race at Monaco. Just as with Jarama it seemed that the track would suit the Ferrari, but Enzo Ferrari chose not to enter that event. The reasons for this have never been fully explained, though they are most likely related to the trauma of Lorenzo Bandini's accident there the year before.
And sadly Amon's ill-fortune never was to turn. Partway into the following 1969 season he left the Ferrari team, exasperated, which was the first of several poor career moves that sent Amon's F1 career into a downward spiral.
Niki Lauda, 1974
Following 1968 Ferrari entered a period in the doldrums, which bottomed out in late 1973 when the Prancing Horse seemed out on its feet. The team even missed a couple of races altogether, and in most of the remaining rounds in the latter part of that year it entered but one car for Arturo Merzario, and didn't make a huge impression on proceedings.
|Niki Lauda - championship glory was delayed by a year|
Credit: Gillfoto / CC
In 1974 Lauda qualified on pole nine times out of 15, and was also by far the year's most habitual race leader, being in first place for 338 laps which dwarfed the mere 77 led by the season's eventual champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Yet somehow it added up to a mere fourth place in the final drivers' standings, 17 points shy of the summit. Indeed, it was left to Lauda's stable mate Clay Regazzoni to lead Ferrari's championship effort.
Historical consensus is that Lauda's inexperience and mistakes cost him a closer run at the title in 1974. This is harsh though, as various technical errors cost Lauda even more. Lauda failed to finish nine times out of fifteen, including in each of the final five rounds (and before this sad run he was indeed leading the drivers' championship). Of these non-finishes, Lauda did show poor judgement in sliding off on the first lap at the Nurburgring trying to seize the lead from Jody Scheckter's Tyrrell; at Canada he crashed out of the lead but did so due to dirt left on the racing line by someone else's accident; while if you're being ultra-critical at Brands Hatch - where a certain victory was denied him by a slow puncture - he would have salvaged more from the day had he bitten the bullet and changed his deflating tyre sooner. But elsewhere no blame could be laid at The Rat's door: at Kyalami and Monaco Lauda had ignition failure, transmission trouble stopped him in Sweden, while his engine failed in Interlagos, Monza and Austria. And Brands we've mentioned.
But fortunately for driver and team they didn't have to wait all that much longer for the sport's ultimate prize to be theirs.
Renault's first stab at the F1 world championship was of a very different mold to the to Enstone-based operation that we were to know later. First time around it operated out of the Renault Sport factory in Viry-Chatillon in France, the company was state-owned, and it was in effect a French national team in all but name. Nah, I can't see anything that could go wrong there, don't know about you.
|The Renault turbo engine: fast but fragile|
Credit: m duchesne / CC
This was never more so than in 1982. That season is one which has developed a legend all of its own, featuring as it did extreme levels of drama, acrimony and tragedy among other things. It also boasts 11 different winners in 16 races, but one shouldn't necessarily leap from that fact to the conclusion that the laptimes that year were close. There was the odd isolated event that year in which the Renaults were off the pace, such as Long Beach and Brands Hatch, but they were very much the exception. The archetypal 1982 race was that the yellow cars would qualify at the front, lead, then drop out and thus open the way for an unlikely winner. Had the Renault car had been halfway reliable it probably would have triumphed just about everywhere, and would have sealed both championships well ahead of time. But it didn't.
The turbo cars had been for a long time more potent in qualifying than races. As early as 1979 the Renault claimed six poles, more than any other team, but could only accumulate enough points for a distant sixth pace in the constructors' standings. This pattern was for a number of reasons: including that the turbos could run higher boost in qualifying, that they used more fuel than the normally-aspirating meaning more of a weight penalty at the start of the race, their tyre wear was higher given the greater weight as well as that turbos' torque was greater. But another major factor was reliability, something honoured by the Renault's early nickname of the 'yellow teapot', reflecting its tendency to emit steam.
Come 1982 there should have been absolution. As mentioned the car on pace was putting the manners on all of its rivals, including other turbo cars, race after race. This is reflected in the numbers: 10 times out of 16 a Renault started on pole; 13 races out of 16 a Renault led. Further, a Renault led for 468 laps, close to half of the year's total and almost three times more than the next most regular front-running team. And yet only four times was a Renault still leading at the end, meaning all the team had to show for it all was fourth place in the drivers' standings and third in the constructors' table.
The main culprit for this was a surprisingly simple one. Early in the year the team introduced a new electro-mechanical fuel injection system. And the pace benefits of it were obvious, demonstrated by when the system was debuted in the Monaco race the two yellow cars disappeared into the distance, at a tight track not previously happy hunting ground for the team. Indeed, the car was tried without the system later in the year and immediately lost two seconds a lap, and Regie's Sporting Director Jean Sage admitted that the team simply could not disregard such a benefit. The trouble was that it could barely last a race distance, as it was based on something of an 'off the shelf' electric motor which couldn't survive in the hostile environment of the engine vee, complete with all the accompanying heat and vibration. By the time of the year's final race a tailor-made motor was created that could survive in such conditions. But by then the horse had bolted.
Come the following year the afore-mentioned BMW and Ferrari had caught up, Renault finished more often than before but was pipped to the title, which sent the team into a spiral of recrimination which eventually led to it quitting the sport as a constructor at the end of 1985. And the marque would have to wait close to quarter of a century for a team called Renault to finally scale the F1 peak of the world championship. And it did so in a very different form to what had come before.
Ayrton Senna, 1985-1986
It's odd isn't it? We're undergoing widespread self-recrimination among F1 acolytes over the state of things right now, on the grounds that cars are not being driven to their limits in races due to the design of the Pirelli tyres. And yet the 1980s turbo era is commonly harked back to as a golden age for the sport. Often, out of sheer devilment, I'd quite like to ask such Pirelli-bashers what they think of F1's first turbo era, so to have the opportunity to pat myself on the back for uncovering an irony.
|Ayrton Senna - hampered by fuel rations|
Credit: Peterhanna / CC
Those powered by Renault engines had particular cause to regret this situation. And among these, quintessentially, was a young Ayrton Senna. He cut his teeth in F1 at Toleman in 1984, before immediately (and amid some controversy) making the step-up to Lotus - powered by Renault units - for the 1985 season. Senna clearly had high hopes for the partnership.
And in qualifying at least they made good on them: Senna claimed seven pole positions in 1985, eight of them in 1986, and in either year no one else took more than two. Indeed in the 1985 campaign he led more race laps than anyone else as well. And yet in the ultimate analysis it was only good for two race wins in each year, and no better than outsider championship contention. Some (but not all) of the discrepancy of 1985 could be attributed to poor reliability: Senna had eight retirements and a further race where he finished well down after a long delay. But in 1986, even though Senna now had a team built around himself in an attempt to reduce his series of technical failures, the writing was quickly on the wall, and it was all about fuel. As mentioned this was the age of rationing petrol in races, which was somewhat in contrast in qualifying wherein one could do pretty much what they liked on fuel or on anything else.
Renault's V6 turbo unit was a classic: capable of 13,000rpm and 1100bhp, and taking advantage of the rules the marque was in particular a master of the 'qualifying engine', producing massive horsepower from a short lifespan. This allied with Senna's one-lap abilities which were possibly unparalleled in the sport's history (and some creative use of the ground effect on occasion) meant that pole was pretty much his in advance. But just as assuredly come the race not even Senna could hold off those with far superior fuel economy. In the 1986 season this meant especially the Honda-powered Williams; the Renault while still a good race engine it seemed couldn't begin to match Honda on boost per litre, and thus couldn't run the same turbo boost on race day. Rather like F1 races were groundhog day the Williams, as well as possibly the TAG-powered McLarens, could be counted upon to move past the impeded Senna sometime after the green light. And it all became quickly apparent in 1986: in the season's opening round in Brazil Senna put in one of his stellar qualifying laps to take pole, three-quarters of a second clear of the next guy, and if this were to happen today we'd assume that such an advantage would have set him up for an easy win. But in the race the Williams of Nelson Piquet left Senna behind, winning easily with fuel to spare while his compatriot crawled in a distant second on nearly dry tanks. It was to be the story of his year.
Senna eventually concluded when it came to Honda units, that if you can't beat them join them. And we know how that one turned out.
Juan Pablo Montoya, 2002
Anyone who doesn't like Juan Pablo Montoya gets no tea and biscuits at my house. I'm an unashamed fan of his. And, yes, while he was by no means perfect as an F1 driver, his irrepressible spirit, shown in and out of the car, aligned with his instinctive brilliance made the sport much more fun to watch than it would otherwise have been. No one's going to convince me of different.
|Juan Pablo Montoya - celebrating yet another pole in 2002|
Credit: Apassori / CC
So why was this? The best explanation is also a familiar one: yes it seems in large part to have been down to the tyres. Nothing is new in F1, as I said.
This was year two of Michelin's return to the sport, diving head on into a tyre war with incumbent Bridgestone, and it was still experiencing some teething problems. While grip was there in ideal circumstances on race day the French tyres were notorious for undergoing a 'graining phase', wherein rubber 'balls' would appear on the tyres' surface and leave the Michelin-shod runners sitting ducks for a number of laps. Worse for Williams, while in the previous year it was Michelin's clear standard bearers come 2002 McLaren had decided also to throw its lot in with the Clermont-Ferrand organisation, meaning that the tyre supplier had to do its best to please both. And this was an age wherein Bridgestone transparently was producing rubber not only bespoke for Ferrari but even bespoke for Schumi's driving style. And under Ferrari/Schumi's influence Bridgestone went down the path of providing relatively hard compounds (a little to the chagrin of other users of the Japanese rubber).
These were less good for qualifying than for the races, and either by accident or design it seemed the Michelins were a mirror image, relatively speaking a more competitive proposition on a single qualifying lap. And this spliced with Montoya's raw ability and a powerful BMW engine in the back of the Williams meant that the extrovert Colombian was often the man to beat on a Saturday. But come a lap or two after Sunday's green light reality would have a larcenous impact on Montoya, as the red cars would quickly sail past as if from a class above, and often within a handful of laps. In the race the boot was on the other foot: the hard Bridgestones came into their own, leaving Montoya to struggle at the best of times let alone in 'graining phases'. And further while the Williams that Montoya drove had a useful BMW power unit, its chassis was not the best, not producing the downforce of the McLaren never mind of the Ferrari. You could just about get away with this on a single lap on a Saturday particularly if you could chuck it about as Montoya did, but you couldn't get away with it on a Sunday.