Australian Grand Prix: Pirelli Put on a Good Show
The early signs on Friday were ominous – would this be another Vettel romp? Over the last few weeks, everyone talked themselves hoarse saying that winter testing provided no reliable metrics by which to measure the differences between teams…we’d have to wait and see come Melbourne. Well, Melbourne has come, and Vettel comfortably outpaced all others on Friday. And made it look easy.
For the first time since 2010, qualifying was (at least partially) washed out and had to be decided on race day. In the wet, Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes looked as peerless as Vettel and the Red Bull did in the dry. Race day dawned grey and rainy, but by the end of Q1 there was a dry line and Vettel stormed around it to claim his 37th pole position…from just 102 starts. The gathered clouds were portentous of more than just rain.
But there were voices – smart, experienced voices – saying that, actually, based on data extrapolated from the few dry long runs done in winter testing, Red Bull might not be looking after its tires as well as others. Namely, the Lotus, which was relentless and consistent on those testing runs. Was there a shred of hope for all those who wished to avoid a repeat of the Schumacher years of dominance?
When the lights went out, the short answer was a resounding no. Vettel made his customary perfect start. His teammate, hometown hero Mark Webber, also produced his trademarked start by dropping from 2nd to 7th before the apex of turn one. Felipe Massa, who out-qualified Ferrari’s golden child, Fernando Alonso, for the third race in a row, made a perfect start and sprang past Hamilton’s new Mercedes into 2nd. Alonso raced the opening corners like he had eyes on the side of his helmet; on the run down to turn one he was boxed in and reacted with a millisecond throttle lift and jink to the left, before immediately slicing back hard right into a gap that it is impossible to believe he knew for sure was there. Great traction out of turn one put him alongside Hamilton on the run to turn three, where he executed a masterful pick and roll off his teammate to put Hamilton behind him for good. Amazing racecraft at any time, but for the opening corners of a brand new season, after only a few days of testing, it was simply incredible.
Throughout the field, the racecraft on display all day was laudable. Again, the first race back, and the first F1 race period for the five rookies, and there was not one single incident of argy bargy to report. No hopeless lunges by eager drivers anxious to impress, no momentary losses of concentration resulting in a visit to the Front Wing Emporium. The only sloppy moment was Pastor Maldonado needlessly letting his left rear wheel touch the grass under braking. A one-way trip to the gravel was his reward. No real surprise. I suspect a long season for him alongside the cool and collected Valtteri Bottas. Or maybe a short season, depending on the elections in Venezuela.
After just a few laps it appeared those clever people and their extrapolations might just be right. Vettel’s Red Bull was going backwards into the clutches of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari. And the conspiracy theorists got their thumbs all a-Twitter-pated…would Ferrari, could Ferrari, in the opening race of the season, bring Alonso in first, even though Massa was the better placed car, giving him the undercut? Surely that would prove his status as Alonso’s lackey once and for all and fully deflate his sails before the season even got going. But before Twitter could erupt with howls of injustice, Ferrari duly brought Massa in, followed a lap later by Alonso.
They pitted after Vettel, and thusly rejoined right where they were before the stops, but it was plainly obvious from only the first six laps that Vettel’s Red Bull was not looking after its tires nearly as well as some other cars.
So there they were, after the first round of stops had played out, and back in front. Well, not exactly. First they had to just get around the pesky Force India, driven by prodigal son Adrian Sutil. What a nice story it was, too. After more than a year out of the sport – the result of stabbing someone in the neck with a champagne flute in a nightclub fracas – Sutil had a vanity lead in his first race back. But the feel good story wasn’t all talk no trousers – after a few laps Sutil was extending his lead on Vettel, who was himself increasingly hounded by a couple of prancing horses.
The real star of the Australian GP: Pirelli’s medium tires.
And so the real story of what the season ahead would be all about finally came harshly to light: tires, tires, and more tires. Massa was plainly catching Vettel as the runs wore on, but he still had to pass him. But Sutil, who was the highest placed runner to start on the longer-lasting medium compound tire, could pass them all easily as they spent 22 seconds in the pit lane getting rid of their supersofts, which are apparently made from butter.
Ah, the modern Formula 1 pit stop. Yes, with the winding entrance and crawling speed limit, even a good stop adds 22ish seconds to your race. But the time stationary, actually having four tires changed and the front wing adjusted, takes only about 1/10th of that. 2.3 seconds is the best achieved and to witness it is to see F1 at its best. Perfect, beautiful choreography, easily as majestic as the best dance, and all under the most immense stress, strain, heat, and danger. Not one ounce of fat is left untrimmed. Lean and mean does not begin to do it justice.
So, even after a perfect, poetic, pit stop, if there is another car that’s ultimately slower than yours, but is kinder to its tires, your 32-plane front wing might well just find itself with a face full of Coanda effect from the half-assed diffuser of the mid-gridder ahead of you.
Until, that is, Sebastian Vettel used that jewel-like front wing and his considerable talents to slam his car under the mid-grid Sutil in a beautifully aggressive outbraking maneuver. Tires are tires, and cars are cars, but ultimately, Sutil isn’t Vettel.
Then the decisive moment. Earlier than anyone had anticipated, Alonso, still behind Massa, speared into the pit lane. After the blur of a pit stop, he emerged and put in a storming out lap. Vettel ducked in on the next lap to cover him, but it was too late. Alonso got the undercut and was not looking back.
Massa had had his moment, but the voices on Alonso’s side of the garage had called time. Or maybe it was Alonso’s call, and Massa had just missed his chance to read the race, what with all the knob twirling and button pushing to do each lap. Well, regardless of who made the call, normal service at Ferrari was duly resumed.
So Alonso was in the lead, right? Wrong. Tires, don’t forget are more important than anything – that’s why he was ahead of Vettel, the pole sitter, in the first place. No, another car, somewhat more fancied than the Force India, had managed one stop to Vettel, Alonso, Massa, et al’s two…the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen. Hmm, those smart people might be smart after all. Looking at the lap times, it was pretty clear that, barring a rain shower, Kimi had the car to beat.
Which is when another aspect of modern Formula One became clear: Sometimes the race you see is not the race you are watching. If a viewer expects to tune in and listen to Bob Varsha and David Hobbs rabbit on through seemingly insignificant pit stops and tire choices, then they will be bored to tears. But if a viewer can see one thing, but watch many things, they will be rewarded with a rich and interesting race.
Ultimately, once the pit stops had played out – two for Raikkonen to three for Alonso – there were twelve laps to watch to see if the Lotus’ tires would ‘fall off the cliff’ before the end, allowing Alonso an opportunity to pounce on the lead. Kimi put paid to any thoughts of that happening by pumping in the race’s fastest time on the penultimate lap. On 23-lap old tires. Ouch.
Kimi punched the air with a slightly less limp fist than usual as he crossed the line. Human emotions can be so difficult sometimes.
Sutil had another four laps of glory while Kimi made his second stop, but in the end his tire strategy wore thin and he finished in a respectable 7th place. It was a great return. Mark Webber used the Red Bull’s incredible downforce to race strongly, putting a great and brave move on Paul di Resta along the way, but ultimately his start made it a long day. Sixth place was his reward.
The much fancied Mercedes are still an unknown quantity. The pace is in there, but reliability issues and tire wear still have to show their hands before the team’s potential can be judged. Lewis raced well, as always, finishing a fighting fifth. Nico retired with ‘electrical’ problems.
McLaren could be facing a long season. Jenson Button grabbed a couple points by coming home 9th, but Sergio Perez’s debut resulted in a pointless, lacklustre 11th. Martin Whitmarsh looked like a haunted and hunted man in interviews afterwards. Historically, few teams are better at in-season development, but one has to look back to the McLaren/Peugeot days to see them starting from such a long way back.
So, just as winter testing told us ‘nothing’, neither does just one race. One chilly race with crazy qualifying conditions. Malaysia awaits with sun baked tarmac and cream soup humidity. Sounds like a good test of the tires…