15
Mar
10

Thoughts on the Bahrain GP

So the first Grand Prix of 2010 is in the books, with a Ferrari 1-2 and not a heck of a lot of passing.  The wailing and gnashing of teeth has begun, to the usual tune of “zOMG new rules have killed F1!!!1!one”.  Planet-F1 concludes that the FIA has fucked everything all the way up:

Something already looks fundamentally, crippling wrong with the new regulations. Wait and see? The danger of that policy is that many people will already have decided not to wait or see, and a further exodus will follow if a soporific re-run is repeated in Albert Park.

Part of their argument is that 2010’s second-generation double diffusers are inhibiting passing — and indeed there’s another fucking diffuser whinge on — but they cite only complaints from Mercedes GP drivers.  Ross Brawn is good, but he’s not prescient; designing a new front wing to work with nigh-untested front tires while running close astern of diffusers you’ve never seen before is a tall order.  And speaking of the new tires, they’re apparently both too fragile, as per

the confession of Jenson Button, the World Champion no less, that he was focused on protecting his tyres rather than producing pace.

…and too robust!

Even without a mandatory second pit-stop, the show would still be a spectacle if the extra weight of the cars weakened the performance of Bridgestone’s rubber. The problem in Bahrain, as noted by Martin Whitmarsh, was that “There was no real serious degradation of the tyres”.Tyre management was easy rather than a skill, and that’s particularly bad news for Jenson Button because his skill at nursing his tyres was predicted to give him a critical edge over Lewis Hamilton (among others). Unless Bridgestone start blistering, that advantage will be factored out of the equation to his considerable disadvantage.

James Allen piles in on the tire issue, though he has a different solution in mind:

After the race Alonso said that the races this year are likely to be dull because the result will always be decided by qualifying and the first lap.And as the front runners are always likely to choose the soft tyre for qualifying and then make an early stop to the hard, there is a risk that all the races will follow the same pattern as today and become very dull.

[...]

My proposal would be more simple than that and would not require unanimous agreement. It is for Bridgestone to bring tyres which are closer together in performance, rather than two steps apart as at present. This was done last season and it improved things, but now they have gone back to bringing super soft and medium to the first race. Because the soft is so much faster, around 6/10ths and degrades more quickly, it will always be the qualifying tyre, which then leads to an early first pit stop for the medium, which is the better race tyre.

With tyres that are closer together, the performance difference is less and so are the wear rates and it is more attractive to try a different tactic. I’ve asked quite a few engineers tonight and they agree that it would be a step in the right direction without disadvantaging anyone.

Gordon Kirby, meanwhile, summarizes the whole thing with a sprinkling of insightful remarks:

In particular, he picks out this quotation from Lewis Hamilton:

“It’s a different challenge,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think it made the racing more exciting in tems of being able to overtake. Through the first half of the circuit I could follow Nico but as soon as we got to the fast sectors it was impossible to stay behind and there just wasn’t enough grip from the tires to be able to stay with him.

“But I think it’s an interesting season ahead of us. Bit by bit, everyone is learning how to use the tires more. I think trying to understand the tires is probably the most interesting part, trying to conserve your fuel load and know when to attack and when not to attack. I think this is a real challenge.”

The more insightful parts of F1 fandom are thinking back to drivers like Alain Prost, back before 1994 when refueling was also banned, and considering that proper tire management is a skill that the new drivers will have to learn in greater depth.  My opinion — worth, as always, what you pay for it — is that it’s too damn early to tell.  Especially with the drastically limited testing schedule, it’s ridiculous to expect teams to go out at the first Grand Prix of the year and push balls-out into the unknown, when instead they can run a conservative race, score decent if not spectacular points (Ferrari perhaps excepted), and get more data on not only how their cars (and tires) behave but also on what their competitors are doing.

Kirby again, quoting Alonso:

“The first race of the championship, or the first three or four races of the championship, are not in my opinion crucial for anything,” Alonso said. “You just need to take some solid points for the team, to get used to the new regulations, to understand a little better the tires and the races themselves. From a driver’s point of view I don’t think this first part is a crucial part to the championship.”

The refueling ban changed the tactical landscape of Formula One, and the testing limits made it hard for the teams to react.  I’d say it’s a bigger change than 2008-2009 — sure, the cars changed less coming into this year, but the options available to the teams changed drastically.  As the teams and drivers get better acquainted with their options, they’ll get less conservative and more aggressive (and presumably figure out the aero issues about which PF1’s got its panties in a bunch).  Drivers will learn how to take best advantage of their tires, and race management from the drivers (see “Alain Prost”, above) will become as important as management from the pit wall.  Being fast for three twenty-lap stints won’t be enough; drivers will have to save their tires for just the right moment — maybe at the end of the race, when their cars are at their lightest — without losing so much ground as to be unable to take positions.

Then again, I’m the sort of person who watches Friday practice, so I’ll probably be happily geeking out on F1 even if there’s no passing.


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