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Apr 15

Formula 1 2013: Chinese GP Recap

Sebastian Vettel Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Pirelli Tyre S.p.A.

Sunday’s Formula 1 GP of China, from the Shanghai International circuit, had it’s share of controversy, hand ringing about the Pirelli tires and five champions battling for the top step on the podium.  Hit the jump for our recap and an op-ed in support of Pirelli’s latest tire strategies.



2013 is shaping up to be a great Formula 1 season.  There have been three different winners, from three seperate manufacturers, in the first three GPs and the paddock is already rife with the Byzantine intrigue that only Formula 1 can provide.

Sebastian Vettel Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Red Bull Media House

Speaking of intrigue, the internet has been overflowing with speculation about the state of the Red Bull team and the relationship between their drivers, after the team order fiasco at the Malaysian GP.

Whether you’re of the opinion that Webber was abused by Vettel or that Vettel was in the right as a future legend in the sport it has to be said that friction between team mates probably isn’t a good thing.

From the first practice at Shanghai International Circuit, both Red Bulls looked like they were struggling for pace.  The two long straights, both of which have a DRS zone, were proving too much for the Red Bull strategy of overall lap speed vs. raw top end power.  Under race conditions the Red Bull cars were giving up 15-20kph(9-12mph) in the DRS zones.

 

Sebastian Vettel Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Red Bull Media House

In addition to slow pace qualifying created new and exciting conspiracy theories when Mark Webber ran out of fuel during Saturday’s Q2.  How a top tier F1 team like Red Bull manages to not put enough fuel in their car is a mystery.  Not only did the fuel issue result in Webber qualifying in 14th but there wasn’t enough fuel in the car for the required FIA sample and therefore he was sent to the back of the grid, Red Bull actually started him from pit lane after making some setup changes to the car.

While the pit lane isn’t exactly the optimum starting position, Webber has proven that he can finish well after starting from the back of the field.

 

With Red Bull struggling, Ferrari showed great pace with Massa and Alonso topping the times sheets in practice and finishing ffifth and third in qualifying.

The renewed pace of Massa and an unquestionably better car in 2013 makes Ferrari a legitimate contender for the constructors championship and perhaps a drivers championship as well.

Ferrari weren’t the only ones with winning potential in the pre-race run up to the Chnese GP.  Both Mercedes and Lotus looked very strong at a the track which emphasizes top speed.  Unlike in years past, all of the top teams look to have really solid overall cars this year.

 

 

© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO X FERRARI

Once the lights went out and the race got underway it was a Ferrari show from start to finish.  Alonso and Massa were running 1 and 2 during the first stint, before Massa dropped back to finish 6th with tire graining issues.  Alonso simply drove away from the field, finishing first with Raikonnen second in the Lotus and Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes, managed to hold off a last minute charge from Vettel, to take the last step on the podium.

Webber’s start from pit lane initially looked like it might work out as he managed to race his way through the mid field by lap fifteen before colliding with Vergne’s Toro Rosso.  After stopping to repair his wing and take on new tires his Red Bull RB9 ground to a halt less than one lap later,  after it lost an improperly secured rear wheel.  Conspiracy theorist immediately started pointing fingers but the only thing we can really be sure of is that Mark Webber might be the unluckiest driver in F1 history.  It really would be interesting to see just how fast he could be if he managed to have a season without incident.

Mark Webber Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Red Bull Media House

I’m not going to claim that Webber is as fast a Vettel, who is an undeniable talent regardless of his personality flaws, but it is interesting to look back on Webber’s career and see just how many times he was forced out with a mechanical and still managed to finish the season in the top five for the driver’s championship.  It is probably safe to say that Webber would most likely be a lead driver on any other team and if the rumors of his retirement at the end of the year are true the F1 grid will be losing one of it’s best racers.  Some of those rumors place Webber at the core of Porsche’s return to endurance racing, with numerous media outlets claiming the he has signed a 5 year contract with the legendary German marque.

Lotus Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Pirelli Tyre S.p.A.

Just as they do every season F1 pundits and teams spend most of their time complaining about the tires.  Since the series went to a spec tire, and especially since the advent of the rapidly degrading Pirellis, teams have been complaining about the on thing on the car that they can’t control, the tires.

There have been a number of teams and drivers, not to mention fans and bloggers, who have come out in the last couple of weeks with complaints that the tire prevent good racing and F1 is boring because the drivers are driving to conserve tires instead of racing at 10/10ths all the time.

Apparently these fans haven’t been watching the same races I’ve seen this season.  I can’t speak to the driver’s and team complaints, complaining about racing is sort of de rigueur for all professional racers and teams, but to the fans and pundits out there I say that you really need to face the harsh reality that racing has never been about driving at the maximum at all times.  

The famous axiom that ” to finish first you first have to finish”  was coined by some wise and canny individual during the dawn of human competition, not just motor racing.  Have you ever watched the Kentucky Derby?  The horses aren’t flat out from the gate to the finish.  The hundred meter dash seems like it’s pretty much all out right?  Not exactly, if you watch them closely you’ll see that they only turn up the wick when they have to, especially since they usually need to run multiple races during a typical event.

But motor racing is different  and back in the day all the drivers “raced” all the time! Not exactly, tires are always the critical resource that has to be manged during the race, sometimes more than fuel.  Watch any MotoGP or Superbike race, series in which there are no pitstops, managing the tire through out the race is critical.  Knowing when to use the tire and when to conserve it is the difference between finishing on the podium or well down the field.  I have never heard anyone complain that those guys aren’t “racing”.

Driver’s don’t just manage the tires, they manage and try to conserve the whole car.  Granted a modern Formula 1 car is surprisingly durable but simply driving the wheels off of a car has never been the way to win races.  Banging across curbs, using the brakes too hard and running in dirty air are all things that can use up a car and end a driver’s race on any given day. As a result, driver’s try to avoid doing those things unless they really have to, it doesn’t me they are racing any less hard so why would they be expected to not have that same approach when it comes to tires?

Nico Hulkenberg Formula 1 2013 China GP

© Pirelli Tyre S.p.A.

With the current tires, good tire strategy allows teams to gamble and maybe gain a tactical advantage during the race.  A good example in China was Sauber who managed to put Hulkenberg in the front of the field for much of the race before finishing a respectable 10th, a very good result for this year’s under performing Sauber chassis.

Jensen Button and Sebastian Vettel both used alternative tire strategies to overcome their cars’ lack of pace with Vettel nearly running down Lewis Hamilton for 3rd place, in the closing stages of the race.

Do we really want to go back to the bad old days when tires could last the entire race?  I don’t recall a lot of great racing during those years, just the fact that someone made a pass during a race was news.  Now with the “inferior” tire every race has more passes, in the pits or otherwise, than there used to be during a whole season.

Let us know what you think in the comments section and we’ll see you next week for our recap of the Formula 1 GP of Bahrain.