Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The black round things

Interesting race at Bahrain, eh? I don't mean interesting as in exciting, in the breathless, wheel to wheel action sense (although David Coulthard, of all people, did his best to oblige with a drive from the back in his Red Bull) No, the point of interest, for me, is that I had assumed this season would be about Ferrari and Mclaren, and by extension, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. And yet in Bahrain, both of the established stars, the men we assumed would dominate the sport now that Michael Schumacher has taken his leave of absence, were overshadowed by their team mates. Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton qualified 1-2 and finished in the same order. Raikkonen trailed in third, while Alonso ended up unable even to keep the rather promising BMW of Nick Heidfeld behind.

I can't see things staying that way all season, but then, a few weeks ago, I'd have had a hard job believing that as early as Bahrain, Alonso would end up being outpaced by Lewis Hamilton. It does rather appear at this early stage in the season that we might have a genuine four way battle for the world championship on our hands between both Mclaren drivers and both Ferrari drivers. How each team handles what could prove to be a very delicate situation could be one of the points on which the season turns. Bahrain also served to illustrate that tyres could also be crucial this year, even in this post-Michelin era.

As a long time follower of the Champ Car World Series, I have to say I've never been a great fan of the 'red tyre rule'. This, for those not so interested in moribund American single seater series as I, is the rule by which Bridgestone bring 2 types of tyre to each race (the 'black sidewall tyre' and the softer 'red sidewall tyre') and each driver is required to run both at some point in the race. It always seemed gimmicky, and when combined with Champ Car racing's overfondness for the use of full course cautions, it can sometimes contrive to turn races into lotteries.

I was therefore rather disappointed over the winter to discover that a version of this rule has been adopted in Formula 1 this year. The requirement for teams to use both the 'hard' and the 'soft' tyre during the course of every race struck me as the kind of artifice that F1 would do well to avoid. More than anything, it seemed a cynical attempt to keep the commentators talking about tyres after the end of the tyre war, so maximising the publicity for Bridgestone. On closer examination, the rule does make a certain amount of sense, though.

Given that the rules require Bridgestone to bring 2 types of tyre to every race, the requirement to use both types of tyre in the race does have the significant logistical advantage of reducing the number of tyres brought to each meeting. Which given that all the tyres have to be shipped out from Japan, represents a significant cost saving for Bridgestone (and in environmental terms, of course, is of rather more consequence than painting the globe on the side of your car).

At Bahrain, we saw an intriguing hint that the rule might play a significant part in this season. In Champ Car racing, everyone uses the same chassis, so in theory, everyone is in the same boat, relative to each other, when it comes to tyre choice. In Formula 1, however, it is entirely possible that one team may have the fastest car on the hard tyres, while another team has the best car on the softer tyres. At Bahrain, this appeared to be the case, and it added considerably to the quality of the race. On the soft tyres, especially once the track had rubbered in, the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen clearly had the legs of the Mclarens of Hamilton and Alonso. Indeed, Alonso's Mclaren was so unsettled on the softer tyres that Heidfeld's BMW ended up getting past him on the track - the only passing manouvre between the top 6 to take place on track all day.

Come the final third of the race, though, and the switch over to the harder tyres, the situation appeared to reverse. Suddenly, Hamilton began to pull away from Raikkonen and start reeling in Massa, while his team mate Alonso was right onto the back of Heidfeld, and had he been able to find a way past him, might quickly have pulled up to Raikkonen's gearbox.

This could be very good news for the season as whole. With the tyre war ended, there is a danger that Grands Prix, especially under the sprint/stop/sprint/stop format, simply involve the car/driver combination that is fastest in qualifying racing off into the distance on Sunday and everyone following on behind in formation. It is not a formula which does anything to increase the likelihood of different cars being fast at different points in the race.

The tyre war between Michelin and Bridgestone did this to a degree. Sometimes, one tyre-maker would have a better tyre for qualifying, and another would have a better race tyre. Other times, one would have a tyre which worked better on a rubbered-in track, and the other on a green track. The effects of this were limited, but at the very least, last year it resulted in considerable variation in the performance of the Bridgestone-shod Ferraris and Michelin-shod Renaults from one race to the next.

Think back a couple of years to 2005 though, and there was notably more overtaking. Hell, there was even overtaking at Monaco. Why? The one tyre rule. Because drivers were forced to run the same set of tyres for the whole race, really significant variations in performance could emerge through the course of the race. A driver might be quick in the early laps, but kill his tyres in the process, struggling seriously as the race progressed. Indeed, this is pretty much exactly what happened in Monaco, with Fernando Alonso struggling and ultimately failing to hold off the Williams pair of Heidfeld and Webber as the race neared its conclusion.

Thinking back much further, to the days before refuelling, races could end up as nail-biting tortoise and hare battles between drivers hoping to take advantage of track position to do the whole race on one set of tyres, against others intending to make up time lost in the pits with the advantage of fresh rubber. With fuel stops thrown into the mix, a no-stop strategy is never going to be effective (although it did net Mika Salo points for Tyrrell in 1997) but back in 1987 it led to two classic duels - at the British Grand Prix between non-stopping Piquet and his team mate, Nigel Mansell, and in Monza, where it was Senna who attempted to go the whole race on one set of tyres, and Piquet who eventually chased him down after stopping. Sadly, while I've never been a fan of fuel stops, it seems that they are here to stay in F1. It doesn't yet seem to have dawned on the powers that be that such stops actively discourage passing on the track, as passing at the stops is almost always the safer option. Formula 1 has been the poorer over the last decade or so for it.

That said, with what just might be a four way battle for the world title, and perhaps even a six-way fight if BMW can make big strides in the month long break before the late-spring flurry of races that begins with the Spanish Grand Prix, this could still be a very interesting season.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Good point about the tyres, Patrick, although it seems a pity that artificial requirements are necessary to spice up F1 racing. And let's hope that not only BMW will get their act together and be able to get amongst the leaders. Red Bull are beginning to show potential, as are Williams. Plus, I read somewhere the other day that it would be foolish to write off Renault just yet. I think we have a classic season in the making this year.

5:42 AM  

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