Alonso claims the Shanghai spoils

Fernando-Alonso-Barcelona-Race-2012Strategy and tyre choice dominated the Chinese Grand Prix with Alonso ultimately choosing the optimum way of minimising the pain of the option tyres which could only be used for a handful of laps.

The Ferrari driver started on the option tyre and battled his way to the front in the opening laps as Raikkonen suffered a terrible start and dropped to sixth from the front row. Pole sitter Hamilton converted his grid position into an early lead but he was suffering from wear wear after only a couple of laps and Alonso was able to comfortably overtake him into the first corner on lap five with his teammate, Felipe Massa, also barging past Hamilton.

The race was defined by the tyre strategies of the different drivers. Whereas Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen all started the race on the option tyres, and made early pitstops to switch to the more durable prime tyre, we saw Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button opt for the opposite.

Sebastian Vettel Jenson Button under lights Singapore Race 2012Both drivers decided that the pain of a lower qualifying position, by virtue of qualifying on the prime tyre, would be erradicated by a stronger race performance on Sunday. By finishing fourth and fifth their strategies saw them make improvements but with Vettel unable to finish on the rostrum it is clear that the decision backfired for Red Bull.

The strategies merged with 15 laps to go when Alonso easily moved ahead of Vettel into the lead. Both drivers still had to make their final stops so while Vettel would get back into the lead, when the Ferrari pitted, it was crystal clear from this point that Alonso’s strategy was the winning one.

Vettel stopped from the lead with five laps remaining to begin his mandatory stint on the options. In the final five laps he was two to three seconds a lap faster than anyone else on track but unable to close the gap sufficently to Mercedes of Hamilton.

Speaking afterwards Seb said:

Sebastian-Vettel-side-Monaco-FP3-2012“After the last stop, the team told me there was quite a big gap to the cars ahead, but also a big gap behind, so we thought we should go for it in the closing stages,” said the triple world champion. “When I came on to the long straight and saw Lewis at the other end turning into the hair pin I thought ‘well, that’s a bit too far’, but obviously we had much more speed on the fresher tyres. It was a little bit disappointing to lose out by such a tiny bit; a few corners more and we could have tried something.”

Even though he crossed the line just a tenth behind Hamilton the German refused to say that their strategy was the wrong decision by the team.

The same, however, can hardly be said on the other side of the garage. A series of bad decisions made by the team and Mark Webber this weekend left the Australian pointless. Webber was relegated to the back of the grid for being unable to provide a fuel sample after running out of petrol in qualifying. The Australian started from the pitlane and opted to stop on the opening lap to change to the prime tyres.

As the opening stints played out Webber was very well placed, and ahead of his teammate when Vettel emerged from the pits, but at the same time Webber made a rash overtaking move on Jean-Eric Vergne. The Australian tried to force his way past the Toro Rosso into five four but the Frenchman was in no mood to cede the position and took his normal racing line.

Jean-Eric-Vergne-wall-Monaco-FP3-2012It was clear that Webber expected Vergne to leave the door open for him but with no compulsion to do so Vergne, quite rightly, defended the attempt from Webber. Contact became inevitable and Webber came off much worse with front wing damage that neccisitated wing change at the end of the lap.

After the Toro Rosso racer, who would struggle to a 12th place finish, said:

“I think Mark could not have got through from where he tried and I’m not even sure if he was trying to pass me. Certainly I didn’t even know he was there. Unfortunately, the impact put me into a spin and the incident damaged my floor. From then I lost a lot of downforce.”

Webber will take a three place grid penalty at next weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix for the incident and afterwards admitted that the crash was his fault. Speaking about his race the Aussie said:

Mark-Webber-closeup-Barcelona-2012“The start of the race was going okay; we elected to get rid of the soft tyre quite quickly and then came back through the field pretty well,” commented Webber. “Regarding the incident with Jean-Eric, I was coming from a reasonable distance behind, Jean-Eric was really wide, but when we came close to the apex he wanted to hit it, which he is entitled to do, but by then I was committed to the inside and the incident happened. It was a couple of laps before our pit stop window, so I had to come in early. The guys thought the tyre was fixed when we left the stop, but it came off on the out lap. We have had a few problems this weekend; I think we could have done something from our start position today, but it wasn’t meant to be.”

When he emerged from the pits it was immediately clear that Webber had a problem; his right rear tyre was not bolted on correctly. Webber would retire from the race with three wheels on his wagon following the most trying three weeks of his career.

Webber and Vergne were not the only drivers to tangle today with Force India teammates, Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil, coming very close to an accident on the first lap. Sutil pushed his teammate onto the grass on the exit of the hairpin and di Resta did well to collect himself from the near accident and only lose a couple of places en route to a points finish in eighth position after a superb final stint to the race where he was able to close the gap to the drivers ahead of him easily.

Paul-di-Resta-JEan-Eric-Vergne-Barcelona-Race-2012Afterwards the Scot was clearly annoyed that his race pace was hampered by the incident and the increased traffic that he faced for the 56 lap race:

“A good result in the end and a strong recovery after a difficult start to the race,” said di Resta. “I was battling with Hulkenberg on the opening lap, but unfortunately there was some contact with Adrian down at the hairpin, which put me on the grass and set us back three or four places. After that I was stuck in the pack, my tyres were graining, and I couldn’t really make much progress.

“It wasn’t until the third stint that I was in some clean air and the pace of the car was very strong. If everything had gone to plan I’m sure we could have done an even better job, but it’s good to pick up more points and to see our race pace right up there once again.”

Adrian Sutil Barcelona test 2013Sutil’s eventful day however was over on lap six after a crash with Esteban Gutierrez. The Mexican was fighting to hold off Sergio Perez at the time and made a costly error under braking to the hairpin where he was also picking up a slipsteam from the Force India ahead of him. It was a typical rookie’s mistake that caused serious damage to his car and ultimately the end of Sutil’s race. After the race Gutierrez was handed a five place grid penalty at the next race. Speaking afterwards Gutierrez immediately admitted fault and apologised to Sutil:

“I had Perez fighting behind me, and I approached the corner too fast,” admitted the Sauber racer. “I was braking at the same place where I usually brake, however, didn’t anticipate the loss of downforce and the amount of speed I had. I tried my best to stop, but didn’t succeed. It was definitely my fault, and I apologise to Adrian. It’s not a good feeling to finish a race like this, but we have something to encourage us to keep going and to keep pushing.”

The incident left Gutierez an immediate retiree but Sutil managed to return back to the pits with a heavily damaged rear wing. A brief fire broke out when the Force India was in the pits, caused by the high temperatures of the brake discs, and the German was left to rue an opportunity missed.

“It was a very disappointing day for me,” admitted Sutil. “Things were going well in the opening laps and then under braking for the final hairpin I got hit from behind as I turned into the corner. I guess Gutierrez missed his braking point and had nowhere to go but into the back of my car. My rear wing was broken and there was no option but to stop.”

Nico Hulkenberg ontrack Barcelona test 2013It was another encouraging weekend for Force India however and the team have shown in the opening three races that they will be a strong midfield contender again this year. Their main rival for “best of the rest” looks set to be Sauber once again and with Nico Hulkenberg briefly leading and enjoying a strong race to a tenth place finish we should see some exciting fights in the midfield battle.

After the race Hulkenberg was clearly disappointed by the result having been at the front briefly. He was one of the few drivers to opt for a mid-race change to the option tyres, a seven lap stint at half distance, and having to complete the final 20 laps on the prime tyre he struggled more and more for speed as the race progressed.

Strategy was the dominant factor of speed today and the aggressive choice by Sauber ultimately left them disappointed by only managing to score the final point. Tom McCullough, the team’s head of track engineering, summed up their tumultuous day well by saying:

Esteban Gutierrez on track Barcelona test 2013“After a strong first lap, Esteban’s race ended on lap five,” he said. “Nico’s pace in the first three stints looked strong. In the final stint we were not as quick as we wanted to be, and ultimately P10 is where we ended up. We need to review the causes of that once we get the car back. We are looking forward to the race next weekend in Bahrain.”

While Sutil’s race was over the battle at the front was just starting to heat up with Alonso, Massa, Hamilton and Raikkonen all having made the change to prime tyres and Vettel and Button still to make their first stops.

Massa was hurt badly by having to spend an extra lap on the option tyres with Ferrari opting to keep him on track rather than attempt the riskier option of pitting both driverrs on the same lap. Mercedes however did succeed in the “double shuffle” and pitted Hamilton and Rosberg nose to tail with little issue.

Lewis Hamilton on trackJerez Test2013Hamilton’s first pole position for Mercedes came about when other drivers were unwilling to push the option tyres to the limit in qualifying but the Englishman’s pace over the weekend showed that Mercedes are making a lot of progress. The car clearly uses it’s tyres a touch to heavily and Hamilton has therefore had a tendency of moving backwards as the race progresses but it will be interesting to see if this continues in Bahrain and Spain.

The car is very quick and well balanced and with Hamilton, and Rosberg, driving well they should be in contention in the coming races. Maintaining development has been an issue in the past but the progress of Lewis in China will give them plenty of reason for optimism.
As the race progressed the Englishman was suffering more and more from tyre wear and could offer only token resistance to Alonso when the Spaniard moved past him but his ability to grind out another podium clearly shows that the former champion will be in the hunt for the title for the foreseeable future:

“It was a good race for me today and whilst I would have loved the win, I’m really happy with third place and being on the podium for the second race in a row,” commented Lewis. “Fernando and Kimi were just a little bit too fast for us during the race and my tyres were shot at the end trying to keep ahead of Sebastian. I could see his car getting bigger and bigger in my mirrors so it was nice to be able to hang on for the third place. We’re not quite there yet in terms of overall pace but everyone is working so hard and I know we can do it.”

Nico Rosberg cockpit 2013Rosberg spent the opening stint of the race fighting with Romain Grosjean for fifth but at his second stop his race starting to turn awry. A delay in the pits cost him time but when he rekoined it was clear that it was far from a small issue. His rear anti-roll bar had failed and he was clearly struggling with the handling of his car.

At times Rosberg admitted that there was only three wheels on the ground so there was little option to retire the car:

“The race was tough for me today and with my set-up I had an unexpected level of understeer which made it difficult to drive,” said last year’s victor. “After my second pit stop, the feeling got worse and I had one front wheel in the air during the corners. The rear anti-roll bar, which influences the balance of the car, had broken so unfortunately we had to retire the car.”

Rosberg also failed to finish in Australia with a mechanical problem before shadowing Hamilton home at the second round in Malaysia.

Prior to Rosberg’s retirement his compatriots Hulkenberg and Vettel were at the front of the field. The German’s both pitted on lap 15 with Red Bull managing to make the quicker stop and Vettel emerged from the stop ahead of the Sauber driver. Hulkenberg’s time at the front had cost Vettel dearly with the Red Bull’s tyres graining badly at this point and necessitating an earlier than planned pitstop.

Lewis-Hamilton-leads-Jenson-Button-Barcelona-Race-2012Their stops would release Jenson Button into the lead of the Grand Prix. The McLaren driver is well accomplished at eeking every inch out of their tyre life but this would give them a significant advantage in Shanghai and allow him to make his first stop on lap 25 and he would manage to make it to the flag with only one more stop. Button would finish go on to finish fifth but afterwards he admitted it was due to the strategy rather than the speed of the car:

“We’re not quick enough to do the same strategy as others,” said the 2009 champion. “We wouldn’t have finished fifth [on a two stop strategy]. A lot of the time we are out front and leading, but you can’t forget that you are doing fewer pitstops and quicker cars will be overtaking you. It all came good at the end, and with the pace we did have I think we should be very happy with it. I think we should take a lot of positives from here, but also know we have a lot of work to do to challenge at the front.”

During the race Button had to cede positions to on track rivals knowing that if he drove hard his tyres would suffer from extra wear and he would need to make an extra stop. It led to interesting radio messages, such as when Hamilton was behind him, where Jenson would ask “should I defend the position?”

Sergio Perez in actionAt the same time that Button made it to the front his teammate, Sergio Perez, was at the centre of attention. The Mexican was defending his position from Raikkonen when the Finn hit the back of the McLaren and badly damaged his nosecone. Raikkonen tried to attack Perez in the middle sector of the lap by driving wide in turn five to make sure he would have good drive through the apex and attack into the next corner.

With the cars side by side, and Kimi on the outside, Perez started to edge towards the Lotus as he took the natural racing line. Raikkonen had nowhere to go and the pair touched. Perez suffered no damage but the Finn badly his his nosecone against the McLaren and would have to race the rest of the afternoon with a battle scarred Lotus. Afterwards Kimi commented to reporters that:

“I got a better run out of corner three and thought he would leave me enough space but he pushed me off the circuit,” said the Finn. “I tried to avoid him but then was on the grass and kerb. The kerb saved me as I had grip. I couldn’t slow down and hit him in the rear. I don’t know if he could see me or how it happened, but there was no way for me to avoid it anymore as I was there next to him and ran out of road.”

Unsurprisingly Perez saw it differently with the two-stopping McLaren driver asserting that, “Basically Kimi outbraked himself and locked his tyres and hit me from behind.”

Kimi-Raikkonen-Barcelona-FP2-2012It was surprising that Lotus opted not to change the front wing at a subsequent pitstop but with Raikkonen able to set very competitive laptimes there was little reason to change the wing. While Raikkonen would finish second Perez struggled for the rest of the afternoon and finished 11th.

In the mid-race the battle at the front was between Alonso and Vettel with the German starting to gradually close the gap to the race leader from 12s but it was also apparent at this point that the Ferrari strategy was unlikely to be trumped by Vettel so Alonso was able to manage his pace and for the rest of the afternoon he was quite comfortable and able to choose when to push harder when necessary to ensure his victory.

His teammate, Massa, however was not able to have such a luxury. Having made a great start and leading the race before his first pitstop he would fall down the order the rest of the afternoon. As the race progressed his pace started to deteriorate and he would eventually finish sixth over 40s behind his team leader.

Afterwards the Brazilian admitted that the issue was largely due to his inability to feel comfortable with the prime tyre:

Felipe-Massa-swimming-pool-entry-Monaco-FP2-2012“It’s difficult to understand exactly what happened today, because the start went very well,” said Massa. “I was immediately quick and the car was working perfectly. At the first stop, I fitted the Medium tyres and after a few laps I began to suffer with graining on the front. That meant I lost ground to other cars and it was probably down to a problem linked to the track conditions and my driving style.

“All weekend, I haven’t felt comfortable with these tyres and in the race, any attempts I made to save them was useless. But for this problem, I would certainly have been in the fight for the podium, but I am still confident because, all the same, I was able to bring home a good points haul which is important in a season that has only just begun”

Massa has shown in the opening three races that he has the speed to match Alonso but he has also shown that he just can’t match his teammate’s consistency during a race. Finding a way to get on top of this will be crucial if he is to reach his potential this season.

degrading-pirelli-malaysia-2011Massa is far from alone in struggling to understand the tyres but after the race Pirelli’s Paul Hembery was clearly pleased with how his company’s product is creating exciting races again this year:

“Strategy played a key role in today’s race,” said the Englishman. “We saw a very wide variety[of strategy] and plenty of overtaking, with many of the strategies reliant on the drivers passing as many cars as possible to gain track position before their next stops. This is the third winner out of three races held so far this season; with five world champions in the top five places today.”

Ferrari are struggling to find the ultimate qualifying speed that some of their rivals have but in terms of race pace they have been superb this season and Alonso’s comfortable win shows just how much potential they have this season. Alonso’s race weekend was almost a polar opposite to his fellow podium finisher Hamilton.

Fernando Alonso Singapore qualifying 2012Whereas the Mercedes driver was able to get the most from his car in qualifying and then had to settle for a tough race where he struggled more and more for pace as the race proceeded. The victor improved as the race wore on and was able to win despite lacking the single lap pace that Ferrari have admitted to lacking.

Alonso made his final stop with 15 laps remaining and emerged in second. With Vettel on much older tyres, and still to make his final stop, it was clear that Alonso had the win wrapped up. Even so he closed on Vettel and made another comfortable DRS assisted move into turn one on the next lap and then set the fastest lap of the race to that point.

Vettel would make his last stop with five laps remaining and drop to fourth position but armed with fresh tyres he was on fire and would set the fastest lap immediately as he reigned in Hamilton and Raikkonen by two to three seconds per lap. He would run out of time and have to settle for the aforementioned fourth place finish.

Fernando-Alonso-Casino-Square-Monaco-Qualifying-2012Alonso would take the chequered flag ten seconds clear of Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel. The Spaniard is now the fourth most successful racer in history having claimed the 31st victory of his illustrious career. He is now level with Nigel Mansell with only Aryton Senna (41), Alain Prost (51) and Michael Schumacher (93) having won more times in the sport.
After the race Alonso was clearly elated as he grabbed a Ferrari flag and waved it for a large Chinese crowd. He would later say that:

“It was fantastic race for us,” said Alonso.”The tyre degradation was better than expected. After the retirement in Malaysia we had some pressure today. You always push but it is true that we had some pace in our pocket. We had more potential but maybe we can show that in Bahrain next week.”

After the race Raikkonen was disappointed not to be able to match Alonso but given his clash with Perez this was another strong race for the former champion.

Kimi-Raikkonen-chicane-Monaco-FP2-2012“Second wasn’t quite what we wanted, but in the circumstances it was the best that we could manage today. I’m not 100% happy because we didn’t win, but it is what it is and second place is a good result after a bad start and the incident with Perez.”

With three races down in the 2013 campaign the F1 circus will now head to the deserts of the MIddle-East and the Bahrain Grand Prix. There is plenty of reason for optimism amongst the teams and as they get a better understanding of the Pirelli tyres we will be unlikely to see a repeat of the qualifying issues from China again. Hopefully however we will continue the kind of exciting racing the the Pirelli tyres assist in producing.

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