6 Former World Champions across 5 of the top constructors. The return of one of the most popular drivers in the sport. 3 different race winners in the first three Grands Prix. A rain hit Grand Prix. The current World Champion having a war of words with a back-marker. F1′s greatest ever finally getting a competitive car but still struggling to score points. A driver winning his maiden Grand Prix. A world famous car manufacturer and a top F1 constructor achieving its first Grand Prix victory in over half a century!!
3 Grands Prix down in the season, and all the above factors are able enough ingredients in making this year’s F1 season, what seems like, the most exciting and competitive F1 season in a long time!
So Far, So Good
When the season began, fans were already expecting big things because of the presence of 6 former World Champions on the grid. However, there was also the fear of things ending up like last year when German Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull Racing Team ran away with their respective Championships even before the others could blink.
With McLaren dominating the qualifying session of the Australian Grand Prix and Briton Lewis Hamilton grabbing pole position, it seemed like they would walk away with a 1-2 finish in the season opener, until Russian Vitaly Petrov stalled his Caterham on the start-finish straight leading to the deployment of the safety car when some cars had pitted while the others had not. This led to Hamilton losing track position and finally losing his 2nd place to Vettel. While his teammate and compatriot Jenson Button took victory in the season opener, Hamilton had to settle for 3rd position from pole.
The front row of the starting grid at Malaysia looked identical to that in Australia with the McLarens again showing their dominance and Hamilton beating Button to the pole. However, torrential rainfall saw the race being red-flagged in between. The final classification looked starkly different from the starting grid as Spaniard Fernando Alonso fended off a late challenge from Mexican Sergio Perez to win the rain-hit race. Hamilton again finished 3rd from the pole.
The third Grand Prix of the season in China saw the resurgence of Mercedes as their German drivers Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher took the front row of the starting grid. While Rosberg achieved his maiden Grand Prix victory, there was a fierce contest for second place behind him throughout the race, with various drivers adopting different tyre and pit stop strategies. The McLarens came out on top in that contest with Button taking second place and Hamilton grabbing the third spot yet again.
Factors Which Matter
The first three races have shown that the raw pace of the cars matter very little in the race results. While the Mercedes leads the pack in terms of straight line speed, the McLarens’ qualifying performances underline their overall balance. However, the two teams mentioned above are not too far ahead of Lotus, Red Bull, Sauber, Ferrari and Williams. Evidence of this fact was that point during the Chinese Grand Prix when cars running from 2nd to 10th in the race easily fit one behind another on the start-finish straight with less than 10 laps to go to the chequered flag. With cars being so competitive, the races so far have been decided mostly on tyre and pit stop strategies, and it seems these two will constitute the most important factors in deciding who will come out on top this season.
The tyre strategies adopted by drivers and their teams have never been of such importance in F1 as they have been this season. The Pirelli tyres being used this year in F1 degrade much quicker than the Bridgestones and the Michelins used to do earlier. The lap times that cars do are a function of the state in which their tyres are. To give an example, a Sauber on fresh tyres will easily outpace a Mclaren on tyres 30 laps old.
With the dependence on tyres, the pit stops where tyres are changed also become of paramount importance. Till a few years back, the pit stops were mainly for refueling of the cars and the pit stop times were proportional to the amount of fuel that went into the cars. With refueling in pit stops being banned from F1 since 2010, pit stops are used mainly for tyre changes. That allows teams to think quickly and react instantly to real time race incidents like mirror their opponents’ pit stop strategy or instantly convert a 3 stop strategy into a 2 stop strategy, both of which have been witnessed this year in races leading to varied results.
Below are some instances this year when tyre and pit stop strategy has had an important impact on race results:-
- In Australia, Vettel mirrored Button’s strategy and dived into the pits right on the same lap as Button. While Hamilton stayed out on track further, the safety car was brought out and Hamilton eventually lost his 2nd position to Vettel.
- While most drivers started on Intermediate tyres in the overcast conditions in Malaysia, Hispania Racing Team’s Narain Karthikeyan decided to start on Wet weather tyres. When the race was stopped in between due to heavy downpour, the Indian had climbed upto 10th on the grid. He, however, could not sustain his position after the restart as more and more drivers switched to the Wet weather tyres thereafter.
- Alonso and Perez’s stunning performances in the Malaysian Grand Prix were also due to their tyre strategies.
- In the Chinese Grand Prix, atleast three drivers changed their pit stop strategy from 3 stop to 2 stop in between the race. While Rosberg’s change in strategy helped him thwart Button’s challenge from behind and take victory, others were not as fortunate. With less than 10 laps to go, Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen with tyres around 20 laps old was in 2nd place holding Vettel and a number of other faster cars behind him. Once Vettel found his way past the Raikkonen, the latter kept plummeting down the order and had gone down to 12th within a lap. Vettel, who had also switched from a 3 stop to a 2 stop strategy just like Raikkonen and Rosberg, lost his 2nd position to Button and eventually finished 5th.
The Men And Their Machines
The McLarens showed their dominance early in the season in Australia and Malaysia. McLaren seemed to be the team to beat and were significantly faster than others before Mercedes usurped them in China. Mercedes themselves had faced issues of tyres wearing out in the first two races. However they seemed to have solved their problems as Rosberg nurtured his car on old tyres very well towards victory during the last parts of the Chinese Grand Prix. The Lotus seems to be a car with pace however, it loses out on sustained performance. The true potential of the car would be seen as further races go. The Red Bulls’ qualifying performances show that they are not as fast as they have been in the past couple of years and depend more on in-race strategies to score points. Ferrari, Sauber and Williams have also shown glimpses of their performances in these races and can put up a decent show in races to come.
If we talk about drivers, let’s first look at the current double world champion, Vettel. With his second place in the season opener, Vettel showed that he was going to put a strong fight to defend his title against the fast and furious McLarens. However his form deserted him soon as he couldn’t finish among the points in Malaysia followed by his worst qualifying session since October 2009. If that wasn’t enough, the fact that his Australian teammate Mark Webber has consistently outpaced him this season is even more troublesome for Vettel. Vettel, who has always performed up to expectations on the track, seems to be frustrated by his sudden loss of form. Nothing but frustration can explain the world champion’s outburst on Karthikeyan for an incident involving their cars during the Malaysian Grand Prix. The incident which led to the loss of quite a few track positions and precious Championship points for Vettel, has widely been regarded as a pure racing incident, with support coming for Karthikeyan from other drivers on the grid. With issues such as these troubling Vettel, Mark Webber seems to be the better man for Red Bull to pin their Championship hopes on.
While Vettel was acting like a ‘crybaby’ (the exact term used for him by Karthikeyan) on his incident with the latter, Button, who himself had a similar incident with Karthikeyan during the same race leading to a similar loss of track positions and points, chose to keep quiet and concentrate on his job. No wonder he has come out to be the faster of the McLarens, which in turn have largely been the fastest cars so far this season. Naturally, the 2009 World Champion is considered to be the front-runner for the World Championship this year, despite him being in the second place in the standings so far.
Button’s teammate and 2008 World Champion, Lewis Hamilton mentioned before the season started that he was aiming at consistency, something which he lacked last year. However, I doubt that he was mentioning about the kind of consistency he has shown so far this season, with 3 consecutive 3rd place finishes, two of them from pole position. His continuous failures to convert good grid positions into race victories will surely be worrying him. Another bothering fact for Hamilton would be that he keeps outpacing Button in qualifying while Button seems considerably faster over the course of the race. All this means that despite being the championship leader at this point, he cannot possibly imagine winning the World Championship for the second time without winning a Grand Prix, and that would need substantial improvement in his performance.
Fan favourite and seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher has shown some pace in qualifying, but bad luck has kept him from showing strong finishes. Once he has borne the brunt of a gear box problem while in another occasion, he was the victim of a bizarre pit stop incident when miscommunication among his pit crew led to an improperly attached right front wheel and his subsequent retirement from the race. His teammate Rosberg put up the strong show winning his maiden Grand Prix in China where the Mercedes’ looked really fast. If indeed the Mercedes team have solved their problems, then we have a fight on our hands for the Championship with Rosberg being another front-runner.
Kimi Raikkonen, 2007 World Champion and another fan favourite, returned to F1 this year with Lotus. While he has provided some entertaining racing instances as was expected from him, he has not been able to produce great results from his Lotus car which has has been picking up good pace. His French teammate Romain Grosjean, on the other hand, has been guilty of throwing away good positions in races.
2005 and 2006 World Champion Fernando Alonso has done what he is famous for, producing great results from a not so competitive car. Like the last couple of seasons, Ferrari have failed to produce a car which is truly competitive for the Championship. However, Alonso has consistently scored points and even gained an unlikely victory in Malaysia. His Brazilian teammate Felipe Massa continues to be a cause of concern for the Ferrari team as he has consistently failed to produce results. The patience of the Ferrari bosses is surely to run out at some point and if rumours are to be believed it might come during this season itself. Till that moment, the two men who will be keeping their fingers crossed are the two Sauber drivers Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi who are virtually fighting a one-on-one battle on ‘who’ll grab Massa’s place’. While both have shown glimpses of brilliance, it is Perez whose performance in Malaysia gives him the edge.
All in all, with 17 races still to go, what will follow is a very exciting 2012 F1 season with Jenson Button and McLaren expected to lead the pack. However, with F1, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty!