It looked like another perfect day at the office for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Vettel led from start to finish, excluding temporary pit stop shuffles, and seemed in perfect control of the race from flag to flag.
Judging from qualifying performance on Saturday, which handed the first four slots to the Red Bull and McLaren duos, it looked as though it might have been a straight contest between those two teams. In the event, it didn’t pan out that way. One of the first surprises of the day: Renault’s Nick Heidfeld motored past McLaren ace Lewis Hamilton off the grid. He then proved to be an impassable obstacle for Hammy for the remainder of the first tire stint.
Another unexpected development: Re Bull’s Mark Webber immediately lost several positions at the start, looming almost as though he’d missed a gear change in his acceleration sequence. We later learned that he hadn’t missed a gear, but was, in fact, missing KERS.
The Red Bull brain trust had elected to eliminate the deployment of their KERS system in Australia, admitting that it had given them reliability problems, and claiming that they didn’t need it anyway — at least, not insofar as Seb Vettel was concerned. They had also admitted that they would probably need KERS for the long straights at Malaysia. They has also claimed that they’d worked the bugs out. Wrong on both counts.
Webber’s KERS didn’t work all afternoon. And, admittedly, without KERS, Vettel probably wouldn’t have been able to hold off, at the very least, Hamilton and Heidfeld at the start. However, at around mid-distance of the race, he was instructed to not use KERS (perhaps because using it would cause more problems than it would solve), and he certainly didn’t seem to suffer from its absence.
Many observers had been eying Malaysia as the first real test venue for the technical changes introduced this year to spice up the show; Specifically, with the return of KERS, and the deployment of DRS (Drag Reduction System), it was hoped that there would be increased opportunities for overtaking.
Formula 1 seems to be dominated by Hermann Tilke designed tracks these days, and while most of them have an undeniable aesthetic appeal, they’ve come under criticism for creating events that are more like well-ordered holiday parades than actual races.
In addition, it was also hoped that the new Pirelli tires, which are deliberately constructed with a stunningly short lifespan, would create additional strategic opportunities for the teams savvy enough to make use of them.
While Australia, which is a hybrid street circuit and purpose built road course, proved to be a less than ideal testing ground for the new technical changes, Malaysia provided a more definitive result. There was quite a decent amount of overtaking, and even when passes weren’t pulled off, we at least saw trailing cars being able to close up on the cars ahead so that were able to dice with one another,
In previous years, dirty (turbulent) are in the wake of one car would often destroy the downforce of a car coming up from behind, thus precluding these opportunities. So DRS, used in conjunction with KERS, actually seems to be an innovation that works, unlike some of the rules tweaks dreamed up by the FIA in years past.
Tire strategy was also key. A unique (and, I have to say, interesting) feature of the new Pirellis is the fact that they not only have a short lifespan (at least, in the case of the options, if not the primes), but when they do lose their grip, they do so quite suddenly. So suddenly that, up and down the pit lane, the final point of performance is referred to as “the cliff.”
We heard this term in use on a radio transmission to Mark Webber during the closing laps of the race, while he was chasing Nick Heidfeld. The Aussie was told by his engineeer that his tires were four laps fresher than Heidfeld’s, and the German’s tires were due to about to fall off the proverbial escarpment.
In recent years, tire behavior has been fairly predictable, and pit stops were planned well in advance by team engineers. Not any longer. The pit trusts now rely on driver feedback to call the stops. On numerous occasions today, we saw drivers pushing their tires past the cliff point, with the result that they suddenly appeared to be skating on ice. As s result, they either quickly began losing positions, or ended up leaving the track entirely.
So tire management became critical. It’s very interesting to compare the performances of McLaren pilots Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Hamilton is known as a true racer, and a hard charger. He also tends to be hard on tires. Button is known less for his absolute racing skills, but he is widely regarded as one of the smoothest drivers on the grid. He knows how to preserve his tires, and how to read a race. When conditions are right, he’s able to let the race come to him, rather than chasing after it. Today the conditions were right: Button was second, on the podium; Hammy (prior to a 20 second penalty being levied, for overly-aggressive defensive maneuvers), came in only second.
Third on the podium was Renault’s Nick Heidfeld. He redeemed himself, in the light of his lackluster performance in Australia. It also confirms that Renault (or Lotus, or whatever you’d like to call this team, which is actually 80% owned by the Luxembourg-based private investment outfit, Genii Capital).
Robert Kubica must be cursing himself at this point, for having allowed himself get involved in a rally crash, from which he sustained injuries that will likely keep him out of the lead Renault/Lotus/Genii cockpit for the greater part of this season. Kubica was generally quicker than Heidfeld when they shared the garage at BMW. If Heidfeld secured third spot today, Kubica must be thinking that he could’ve done better.
For Vitaly Petrov, it was a blush of a deeper red. The Russian’s performance in F1 has been up and down at best. He has a habit of turning in a sterling performance on one weekend, and then completely erasing that from memory by making a horrible rookie-caliber gaffe in the race that follows. Malaysia was a classic example.
He was on the podium in Melbourne, but the image of Pertov smiling, trophy in hand, was easily obscured by a more frenetic sequence, replayed from three different vantage points on the F1 world feed today: Petrov left the track, launched himself over a curb as he tried to reclaim the asphalt, became airborne like a motocross ace, and then crashed into a brake-distance marker after his steering column had fallen off.
It seemed to be a clear case of Petrov luck. Whenever he makes a mistake, it seems to have a calamitous Rube Goldberg chain-reaction effect. He was very nearly let go by the team in favor of Nick Heidfeld at the end of 2010, but he was able to convince the team that he would become more consistent. (Personally, I think the influx of rubles from Russian carmaker Lada, one of Renault’s new sponsors, had something to do with the final decision.) After today’s major gaffe, I reckon he’ll soon be back at the convincing table, telling Renault bosses that this time he really, really means it.
As for the rest, see below for a summary of my estimation might be counted in either the winners’ or losers’ columns this weekend (or both).
Jenson Button: He once again showed his strength as a smooth, bug picture driver, which, all things considered, makes him a perfect compliment to hotshoe team mate Lewis Hamilton. We’ve seen several occasions when Button was able to capitalize on conditions that had left Hamilton left scratching his head.
McLaren: They’re probably the quickest team after Red Bull, currently, and they must be much encouraged after their dubious start in pre-season testing.
Nick Heidfeld: As mentioned above, Quick Nick came into this race having something to prove. He did so admirably. If he continues to deliver, Renault will have a difficult time justifiying the retention of Petrov in 2012 if Heidfeld is still on the drivers’ market. In fact, if Kubica returns to the team in an active role this season, one wouldn’t be surprised to see the Russian making a premature exit from the team.
Renault: They now appear to have a claim to a slot in the top four teams. Today, they performed on a par with the Ferraris, and well ahead of both Mercedes drivers, both of whom spent most of the day in the proverbial weeds.
Felipe Massa: Ferrari’s de facto number two was outqualified by Alonso, but, echoing the Button-Hamilton situation at McLaren, drove a more measured race than the de facto number one, and finished ahead of him.
Paul di Resta: The young Scottish rookie (and cousin of IndyCar star, Dario Franchitti), once again outperformed his more experienced team mate, Adrian Sutil.
Michael Schumacher: He finished ninth, and I’m sure he doesn’t consider that a victory, but the Merc is shaping up to be a laggard, so there’s only so much that Schumi can do to help its pace. The German ace was outqualified by Rosberg again, but he got the jump on Nico at the start, and kept ahead of him for the remainder of the race. He finished more than half a minute ahead of Rosberg, which is at least a step in the right direction. Schumacher said at the start of the season that he expected Rosberg to beat him on occasion this year, but he expected to be ahead of the younger German on points at season’s end.
HRT: If you can call it a victory when both cars retire. Their real victory was in simply making the field. In Australia, they were eliminated after qualifying for not surviving the 107% cutoff rule, i.e. their Q1 times were greater than 107% of the quickest driver in that session. This year, although certainly not setting any land speed records, they at least were able to make the show.
Lewis Hamilton: Always a tough racer, today he was perhaps his own worst enemy. He is sometimes less savvy than team mate Jenson Button when conditions are challenging, and today they were. He didn’t manage his tires well (his engineers should probably take some blame for this), and was forced to run on primes at for his last two tire stints, as he’d run out of options. He also had a late race dice with old nemesis Fernando Alonso. At one point, Alonso moved too close, and clipped Hamilton’s rear tire with his front wing. Had Hamilton brake-tested him? Not easy to say. Nevertheless, stewards gave Hammy a penalty for making two contiguous moves in one braking zone while defending his position. As everyone knows, in F1 one you’re allowed to move off the racing line just once to defend your position.
Vitaly Petrov: For obvious reasons, stated above. This Russian will need to do some fancy talking to get today’s blot off his copy book. His off track excusion clearly appeared to be a case of his tires reaching the vertical drop point in their performance curve, but, that said, the difference between a top tier driver and Petrov is the ability to cope with these conditions. In fact, the new tires have been specifically designed to make tire management (and driving) more challenging for the drivers. Petrov can’t afford to make many more gaffes like this, or he’ll soon be back in Russia driving in a Lada saloon series.
Fernando Alonso: The Spaniard is a pit bull. He’s one of the kmost exciting drivers to watch, as he loves to bring the fight to his rivals. At one point, his engineer encouraged him via radio to push, and Alonso barked back, “I’m pushing, I’m pushing, don’t worry!” And so he was. He looked as though he had a good chance of securing a podium, until he rear-ended Hamilton. Ironiclly, just before the contact, his engineer had been urging him to calm down.
Ferrari: They were the pre-season favorites for being rivals to Red Bull, but they are now clearly trailing behind McLaren, and seem to be on a par with Renault. Ferrari might well boast of a familial corporate culture, but when family members disappoint, divorce and disownership can follow. Is it any wonder that Kimi Raikkonen finds the good ol’ boy culture of NASCAR appealing?
Mercedes: They qualified 8th and 11th and finished 9th and 11th, with Schumi and Nico Rosberg trading their respective running order. They showed the promise of pace in pre-season testing, but their first two races this year have been disappointing as best, and disastrous at worst. Schumacher put the team on the board for points, but a grand total of two points in two races is a pretty slim reward. You’ll remember that Mercedes is the rebranded Brawn team, which, in turn, was the rebranded Honda team. The Brawns were invincible during the first half of 2009, and a Mercedes buy-out must have seemed like a no-brainer to the board in Stuttgart. But the Silver Arrows seem to be replicating the failures of Honda, rather than copying the successes of Brawn.
Williams: This team keeps making stabs at returning to their former glory days. As with other teams, they looked promising in testing this year, but in race trim it doesn’t seem to be coming together for them. Today, two more DNFs. Not what they needed. One wonders if this team might end up going the same way as the old Tyrrell team. Tyrrell, for those old enough to remember, won two world titles at the hands of Scottish ace, Jackie Stewart. That was in the early seventies. Their successes dwindled, however, and in the late nineties they sold the team to a new squad created around Jacques Villeneuve, BAR (British American Racing). BAR, of course, morphed into Honda, which morphed into Brawn, which soon became Mercedes. Funny, how these things come full circle in F1.