Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tales of the Unexpected

That was just possibly the strangest Grand Prix I've ever seen. Not the most exciting. Even at a circuit like Spa Francorchamps, overtaking appears to be all but impossible in the dry in a 2009-spec Formula 1 car, at least once everyone's warmed their tyres up, and the end result was a something of a high speed procession. But what a peculiar procession it was...

For much of the race, the top 3 was made up of drivers from three teams which had not won a race all year. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, leading from, of all people, Giancarlo Fisichella's Force India, with Robert Kubica holding 3rd until Vettel finally got the jump on him at the last pit stops. His BMW Sauber at last beginning to come good after a miserable season, on the heels of the parent company's recent decision to withdraw from the sport at the end of the year. It was the performance of Fisichella' s Force India which was, by some distance, hardest to explain.

Ferrari might not have won a race until last Sunday, but they had been on the podium in each of the last 3 races, and with Spa being all but tailor-made for KERS, with the long drags up from la Source to Les Combes at the beginning of the lap, and from Stavelot to the Bus Stop at the other end, Spa has long seemed, along with Monza, the place the Scuderia was most likely to break its 2009 duck. Add to that the fact that Kimi Raikkonen always flies at Spa, and the eventual winner was not so unexpected.

Eventual third place finished Sebastian Vettel might have been odds on to win on Friday morning. The cool temperatures of the Ardennes at the end of August and the importance of aerodynamic efficiency through Pouhon and Fagnes should have played to the strengths of the Red Bull. As it was, the Red Bull never looked quite the devastating machine it had at Silverstone, the last real 'aero' track the F1 circus had visited. But for an awful start which left him stuck behind a number of much slower cars,k though, he might stillhave converted his 8th place on the grid into a win. As it was, he will take some consolation from the fact that with Button and Webber failing to score, he has kept himself in the title fight. He's really going to have to repeat last year's performance at Monza though...

What on earth to make of the performance of the man, and the car, which finished second!? Where did that performance come from? Yes, every now and again, F1 produces a freak result, but usually the explanation is apparent enough to the seasoned observer. The wins for Panis' Ligier at Monaco in 1996 and Johnny Herbert's Stewart at the Nurburgring might look equally unexpected, but they were essentially drivers in midfield cars benefiting in races of very high attrition.

Likewise, Damon Hill's near miss for Arrows at the Hungaroring in 1997 and the freak grid at the US Grand Prix at Phoenix in 1990 (Pierluigi Martini's Minardi on the front row, De Cesaris' Dallara ahead of Senna's Mclaren in 3rd, and Olivier Grouillard's Osella in eighth, perhaps even harder to explain on the face of it) were a consequence of the fact that Bridgestone and Pirelli, respectively, had produced the best rubber on the day at a time when all the serious, front-running teams were on Goodyears.

There is no such simple explanation for Fisi's pace at Spa that I can see. Yes, several of the expected front runners fell by the wayside, but Fisichella had been in front of them all at the time, having grabbed pole. Yes, Fisichella likes Spa, but so do a lot of other drivers. Button, for instance, has often gone very well there, and yet qualified outside the top 10 last weekend. There's no doubting, too, that Force India have been steadily improving this season, but only to the point where they no longer were routinely bringing up the very rear of the field. In the dry, they haven't previously threatened the points?

Why might the car suddenly have been so quick. Well, it's certainly clear that the 2009-spec control Bridgestones are very temperamental tyres, difficult to get into their operating window, and it seems that on that day, at Spa, with its combination of a very abrasive track surface and relatively low temperatures, the Force India was getting the tyres right into their operating window. There might well have been a substantial element of luck in this. With in-season testing banned this year, I'm not sure any of the teams have really been able to get a handle on all the tyres in all conditions.

Add to that, the Force India/Spyker has always tended to run a little better at Spa these last few years than it has at most other circuits. Maybe the team have just stumbled on a set-up trick that works well there. They also reckon that the latest upgrades have significantly improved the high speed aerodynamic downforce. Perhaps they've just produced a better implementation of the double-diffuser concept than anyone else. The radical rules change and the testing ban have tilted things a little back towards ingenuity and chance, and away from exhaustive iterative improvement and megabucks.

Mark Hughes take is that what we are seeing is that the Force India just happens to be supremely well adapted to a low-downforce set-up and this has been the first race all season at which this has really counted for anything. If he's right, they'll be right on it at Monza. Over at Autosport, Tony Dodgins (behind a paywall, but worth the subscription) relays the comments of one observer who wonders if something more sinister is going on - "It's simple, the team on pole has allegedly got some unpaid bills, the team that's second is not certain to carry on in F1 and the team that's third is for sale – so obviously they've all got the special comeback tyres that were meant for Schuey!" It's not been the first time this year that there have been whisperings that some Bridgestones are more equal than others.

Paranoia? Probably. It's always tempting to search for excuses when you aren't doing as well as you hoped and expected. And the idea that either the FIA or FOM are somehow conspiring to nobble some teams with duff tyres, because of their role in FOTA, or because of animus between the team principal and Ecclestone or Mosley is going to be hard to shake, even if its groundless nonsense. On the other hand, I had taken much the same view of suggestions that Nelson Piquet was instructed to crash out of the Singapore Grand Prix last year...

If Hughes is right, and the Force India is simply very good in low downforce trim, then this might just put Giancarlo Fisichella between the horns of a real dilemma over the next few days. There have been persistent rumours that Fisi is being lined up to replace the hapless Badoer in the second Ferrari. In normal circumstances, I don't doubt he would have jumped at the chance to see out the autumn of his career with a few races behind the wheel of the Prancing Horse. An Italian, in a Ferrari, at Monza.... How could he resist?

But wait a minute. Is the Ferrari actually a faster car than the Force India at the moment? And can he really pass up on the chance of winning the team's first race? If I were him, I'd be much more confident of my chances against Adrian Sutil in a Force India, than those of beating Kimi Raikkonen in an unfamiliar Ferrari. A tough call, but a nice problem to have. I hope he takes the chance if Ferrari come knocking, but if I'm honest, that's because I want to see what Tonio Liuzzi can do in a competitive Force India. Assuming, of course, that Spa was more than a freak occurrence.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home