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Strategy is back in F1

Posted by Carrot on May 23, 2011 | No Comments

While not as easy as he’d like, losing pole to Mark Webber, losing the first corner lead to Fernando Alonso and being hounded to the finish by Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel still managed to score the win in Spain today. This makes Vettel’s fourth victory in five races, meaning he’s only dropped seven points from the maximum he could have achieved.

Race-wise it was a disaster for Red Bull, everyone was expecting them to run away in clean air, but Alonso’s run into the first corner put them into a real fight. Ultimately Vettel pulled it off even with being delayed by Alonso, Webber wasn’t so lucky. The Aussie ended up stuck behind Alonso for another stint allowing Vettel and Hamilton to disappear and Jenson Button’s strategy to come into play and overhaul him. Ultimately the team still walked away with more points than anyone else, but as we’ve seen before this result could play into the hands of their opponents at the end of the season.

McLaren had an excellent race from their point of view. Expecting to be fighting for the ‘best of the rest’ positions with Ferrari, they finished with Button’s strategy bringing him ahead of Webber and Hamilton being able to challenge Vettel on pure pace. What would have been sweeter is the fact that they ended up lapping everyone else except the Red Bulls, it allows them to concentrate on chasing down the dominant team rather then being concerned with being caught themselves.

Ferrari had the epitome of a worsening day. Both cars started strongly but Felipe Massa ended up retiring with a gearbox problem and despite leading the first stint, Alonso finished a lap down. The Scuderia’s mystery performance issues are really starting to hurt them. When Alonso is overjoyed at fourth place on the grid in qualifying you know there’s problems in that team. This is the point every week where I cast doubts on Massa’s security at that team, you all know the routine, Spain certainly hasn’t helped his case when one of the suspected replacements, Sergio Perez, beat his highly rated team mate on a track where Massa couldn’t get close to Alonso.

The Mercedes GP team managed a double points finish with sixth and seventh, unusually Michael Schumacher was ahead of his team mate Nico Rosberg. It’s starting to look better for Mercedes, with Renault dropping away in performance and Ferrari dealing with their own problems they scored the third most points of any team today after Red Bull and McLaren to move within striking distance of taking Renault’s fourth place in the standings. Last year the Silver Arrows were fighting the French team to the end of the season due to a mid-season dip, this year they’ll surely be hoping to challenge Ferrari for third. Everyone was talking about Schumacher’s future after Turkey, these questions are more relevant here I think. The decider will be which performance was standard and which was an anomaly. If Spain was indicative of his current pace and talent, he’ll continue. If Turkey’s his new standard and Spain was just a fluke, he’ll retire again at the end of the year. It’s up to Schumacher and Mercedes to work that out.

Renault’s Nick Heidfeld recorded a brilliant finish in eighth after starting at the back of the grid following damage from a fire in FP3. ‘Pulling a Webber’ and making the most of his fresh tyres not only allowed him to make up 16 places, but also allowed him to beat his team mate who started sixth on the grid and finished outside the points. Ditching qualifying performance for extra race pace is looking more and more like a valid and effective strategy for the midfield to score points with.

Rounding out the points were the two Saubers, Perez beating his team mate Kamui Kobayashi. Sauber are steadily picking up points whilst their main rivals last year, Williams and Force India, are suffering from a lack of race pace. Rather than go off track for pay drivers and sponsorship to pay the bills, it seems clear that Sauber are aiming to fund their team with prize money, and look like they could manage it with the current performance of everyone behind them.

Even with all the new toys in F1, the returning KERS, DRS and the blown diffusers, it’s clear that strategy based on tyre management is going to be the thing that decides this season. More stops still seem to be better, Button finishing 35 seconds behind Hamilton even though Hamilton had made an extra stop. Heidfeld’s race really does show that sacrificing  qualifying performance can pay dividends, Heidfeld started at the back and finished in the points, Petrov in the same car started in the points and finished outside them. It seems as though the teams have forgotten how to react on the spot to changes in strategy, the last few years of predictable stops and bullet proof tyres has changed their approach to strategy calls.

The most exciting thing about the Spanish race wasn’t on track in my opinion, it was the discussion about the blown diffusers. The version of this technology which continues to blow exhaust gases through the diffuser even when the driver is off throttle has been deemed to be a moveable aerodynamic device. The teams have said that to change the systems to fully legal versions will take time, however those teams that don’t run them might have case to protest the race results until the rules are clarified. There was a lot of talk about Virgin Racing protesting the results of the Spanish Grand Prix after they changed back to their old floor and exhaust system on Friday. Potentially they could protest the results on grounds that everyone in front of them has a car that’s illegal by the letter of the regulations and win a race in the stewards’ room. A fun conspiracy theory… until after the race when Hispania’s Colin Kolles threatened to do exactly that at Monaco if the system was run by anyone in the field. With Monaco only a few days away, expect frantic discussions and clarifications, otherwise the winner of the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix could be Timo Glock in a Virgin.

Back to back races now, we go straight from Spain to Monaco for next weekend. The most demanding challenge for drivers’ concentration on the calender, the walls and barriers of Monaco are only a few days away. A reminder for those who like to watch the free practice sessions, they’re held on the Thursday because Friday is a public holiday in the principality. See you there.

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