The 2011 Formula 1 season has begun much the way last season ended, with Sebastian Vettel leading the pack. Sour grape specialists will argue that it was a case of Vettel’s being in the right car at the right time, but this is a familiar refrain, and one that has been leveled at most dominant champions at some point their careers.
In Vettel’s case, the criticism would be misplaced. Peter Windsor, formerly a commentator for Speed TV, once contrasted Vettel and his team mate, Mark Webber, by saying that, while both men were quick, Vettel showed greater finesse and control when the tires were “at the limits of adhesion.”
Clearly, managing tires effectively will be important this year, when you consider that the new Pirellis have a degradation curve that begins on a shallow slope, and then falls off a cliff. A driver who can maximize the tires; effectiveness when it feels as though the car is dancing on ice will certainly have an advantage.
After yesterday’s race, Webber publicly scratched his head, wondering why he was unable to run with the leaders. “I should be able to stay with these guys,” he said, “but today I finished a long way behind. It was a tough race and I was pushing as hard as I could, but I wasn’t getting much back.”
Webber also conceded that Vettel did a better job of handling the tires than he did: “I was in a different race to Sebastian today,” he said. “I was in trouble with the tyres much sooner than he was, so we need to have a look why.”
While the rest of the grid might say that the Red Bulls were in a league of their own during the race, it was really only Vettel who was. As Alonso said, “Once again today, Vettel seemed to be on another planet.”
That said, McLaren seems to be the clear number two team at the moment, and the brain trust at the Woking squad is bullish that they can close the gap. Naturally, the performance of the McLarens was one of the surprised of the weekend. They had been laggards during pre-season testing, but a quick revision of their exhaust system and flooring allowed them to recover both reliability and downforce, and they’re nearly a second a lap quicker than they were during the tests in Spain.
Addressing their prospects for closing the gap to the Red Bulls, McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh said, “If we make as much progress in the next 10 days as we did in the last 10 then it will be easy, won’t it?”
As for the rest of the field, Ferrari was surprisingly adrift of the leaders, and no doubt Luca di Montezemolo will be giving the team fresh marching orders back at Maranello. While Alonso was able to finish ahead of Mark Webber, he allowed that he wouldn’t have been able to catch Vettel’s Red Bull under any ccumstances.
Mercedes had given their fans reason to hope for an improvement this year, based on their quick times in testing, but Merc had a disastrous weekend. Michael Schumacher was rear-ended by Toro Rossos’s Jaime Alguersuari, which apparently caused a suspension failure, which forced him to retire several laps later. And his team mate Nico Rosberg was broadsided by Rubens Barrichello later during the race, which ruined a radiator pod, and forced him to retire as well.
Two teams who also surprised: Renault and Suber. Renault’s Vitaly Petrov scored the first podium of his career, and naturally most observers were wondering what Robert Kubica might have done with the same car. Kubica’s stand-in, Nick Heidfeld, finished well down the chart. Clearly, the Renault brass will be praying for the Pole;s quick recovery.
As for the Saubers, although they finished seventh and eighth initially (see below), they were later disqualified for violating wing regs. Whether the penalty was justified or not, one still has to applaud the effort as both Kamui Kobayashi and rookie Sergio Perez finished ahead of several cars reckoned to be quicker than the Saubers.
Amazingly, the rookie Perez made only a single pit stop. Pirelli officials later said they thought the race data was in error. Surely, the rookie must have pitted at least twice. But no, the rookie driver, in his first F1 race ever, seemed to have manage his tires better than any other driver in the field. Go figure.