Well, the current set of bits in F1 has certainly made for some great racing, but it does make it hard to work out what's going on and why!
In Malaysia Fernando Alonso took a brilliant surprise victory for Ferrari in the recalcitrant F2012 in wet/dry conditions from a hard-charging Sergio Perez in a Ferrari-powered Sauber chassis which looked decidedly superior to that of the engine supplier. They had qualified eight and ninth respectively and achieved the result due to changeable weather, a Safety Car, bold yet judicious calls on the tyre changes and great driving. Alonso was just brilliant and the difference between experience and youthful impetuosity was illustrated near the end where Alonso kept it together in the face of the fast closing Sauber. The Sauber team told the Mexican "we need this place" whereupon, his concentration clearly broken, he promptly ran off the track! Fortunately for them he recovered to come home second, the best ever result for the team (outside BMW ownership).
Click here for FIA lap chart.
In China Nico Rosberg stroked his Mercedes home to a comfortable win. He qualified a massive half-a-second ahead of Hamilton with Schuey just behind. I bet Michael's done some serious data staring and head scratching about that. Hamilton was demoted five places on the grid due to a gearbox change, so we were left with an all Mercedes front row. Sadly Schuey was the only retirement in the race due to a wheel gun failure in his first stop. I don't know if you'd noticed, but there's no Lollipop Man anymore, apparently the car is released by a green light activated by switches on the guns or something. There was a load of guff about the first all Silver Arrows front row since 1900 and frozen to death and then Mercedes' first win as a team owner in 57 years. In reality it's just as plausible to say it was Brawn's ninth win, or BAR's second, or Honda's fourth, or even Tyrrell's 45th, whatever. I wonder just what the Brackley & Brixworth/Stuttgart technical import/export flow is?
The overwhelmingly important.phpect of F1 2012 is clearly TYRES and this has dominated all three races this year. Gradually it's emerging (largely thanks to Ross Brawn) that the Pirelli tyres have a very small operating temperature window. Too cold - no grip, too hot - ditto. The trick is to "switch them on" i.e. get them hot enough but not to overheat them. The trouble with this is that the same mechanical jiggery-pokery that heats them up is the same that overheats them if you go too far!
This makes the balance between qualifying and racing especially difficult. For quali, the tyres must be "on" on the first flying lap, if it's the second lap they are already past their best. Yet the same set-up must work for the first part of the race (same tyres for the top ten and parc fermé for all remember) and not cause excessive degradation, all this with the added complication of minimal fuel for quali and a full load for the race!
In Oz the Mercs were good in quali but overheated their tyres in the race, so they jiggled the bits around for Malaysia anticipating hot weather, then it rained and their tyres stayed switched off! It's interesting that in Malaysia the BBC race commentary had it that the Ferrari and Sauber were "easy" on their tyres and able to run long, but Ross said that Friday practice had revealed they were "very, very hard" on their tyres! I guess the latter makes sense in that the wet conditions meant the Ferrari and Sauber could get their tyres up to temperature, but did not burn them out, but if the Fazza and Sauber can get heat into their tyres why were they so bad in quali (9th & 12th, 10th & 17th respectively)? I guess it could mean they were overheating their tyres in quali, but were just great in the wet conditions in the race.
In China it finally came good for Merc. They got the set-up and strategy spot on with Rosberg qualifying on pole by a clear half second and taking a dominant win with a two stop strategy.
We all know that a number of things affect all this like suspension geometry, set up and aero and driver input. Many older enthusiasts think we understand a bit of this. We know camber angles (the amount the wheels lean in at the top) used to be important and obviously still is because of Red Bull pushing them into the danger zone at Spa last year. It used to be things like camber change and scrub (track change) as the suspension moves up and down were important and still are, because we are told that Ferrari's win in Britain last year was due to their running a suspension that did more of the aforementioned, but their subsequent drop-off in form at high speed (!) places was because they couldn't run it because the downforce at high speed meant the tyres would burn out on their inner edges (see Red Bull earlier). Obviously aero is vitally important, but utterly incomprehensible. In the absence of any satisfactory explanations it's probably best just to sit back and enjoy the racing or it'll drive you mad, though Rene Arnoux taught us older fans everything we need to know about tyre abuse!
China provided the best race yet, this despite the track at one time having the dubious accolade of being the ultimate Tilkedrome. It lost that to Valencia, but who would have believed we would ever see what we saw last weekend? The race started fairly quiet, but at the end as the various strategic scenarios played themselves out there was massive to-ing and fro-ing and some terrific, clean, wheel-to-wheel racing. They seem to have learned that contact ruins both parties' races. Rosberg won two-stopping. Raikkonen went from second to 14th in three laps after his tyres "fell off the cliff"! Jenson Button took the 2nd place for McLaren on a three stop strategy after a delayed last stop. Lewis Hamilton was third on a similar strategy. These two are now first and second in the championship.
Webber and Vettel were fourth and fifth for Red Bull. The Aussie went with a new more edgy upgrade, whereas Vettel chose the earlier, more easy driving bits. In Quali Webber was sixth, but the Wunderkind did not make even make it through to Q1, qualifying 11th. It is clear that Red Bull have suffered the most from the ban on blown diffusers; the main benefit of this is that we have been spared "The Finger".
In fact the new regs have compressed the whole field. McLaren look to be overall best at the moment with Merc catching up rapidly. 'Lotus' have made a big step forward and Kimi has clearly lost nothing and Grosjean has been fast but loose. Off track, the grave-robbing saga of the revered Lotus name in F1 continues. Former Team Lotus was re-badged as Caterham and Lotus Renault (nee Toleman, Benetton, Renault) become just plain Lotus. Recently 'Lotus' announced that they had terminated their title sponsorship deal with Group Lotus, but would keep the name Lotus and that Group Lotus had lost their option to buy a stake in the team.
Group Lotus riposted, saying they were committed to F1 and their owners Proton had lent Lotus £30m and they also still have the right to buy 10% of the team plus another 10% if they defaulted on payments plus the loan was secured against 100% of the assets of the team. All clear? Dunno about Colin Chapman, but I bet Fred Bushell would have loved all this.
Another F1 great name, Williams, have had a return to form which started in Oz with Pastor Maldonado fighting over fifth with Alonso before crashing out very near the end. In Malaysia Senna finished sixth and Maldonado 10th and in China Senna was sixth with Maldonado in seventh. This has put them seventh in the constructors' championship ahead of Force India and Toro Rosso. Other Williams news is that Chairman Adam Parr resigned in April "to pursue a better balance in his life". Rumour is rife that he didn't get on with Bernie. Some of his duties have been taken over by board member Toto Wolff, but we are told he took no part in the appointment of his ex DTM racer wife Susie (nee Stoddart) as a Williams development driver...... Above and beyond all this we must sincerely wish the amazing Sir Frank Williams a happy 70th birthday on 16th April.
So to Ferrari. Clearly the F2012 should be fuelled by Chum rather than Shell. We are told the car is very tricky to set up to behave consistently, if it's good in one area it's no good in another and vice-versa. The lucky win in Malaysia was nice, but the only thing to really give us Tifosi heart is Alonso's driving which has been outstanding. In Malaysia Perez's Sauber chassis was clearly better than the Ferrari and the last few laps were a great display of massive experience versus youthful impetuosity. In China he qualified ninth and finished in the same position, behind a Merc, two McLarens, two Red Bulls, a Lotus and two Williams. If Alonso has struggled it's reasonable to expect that Massa would do so even more. Q12, R15 in Malaysia and Q12, R13 in China. At the moment the chassis looks about sixth or seventh fastest behind McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull, Lotus, Sauber and possibly Williams. This puts them firmly into the incredibly close midfield area. We must hope that they can develop the car. However from the past, McLaren seem the only team capable of performing that particular piece of pig's ear transformation magic.
Other random thoughts were: 1) It took Nico Rosberg 111 GPs to achieve his first win. This puts him 51st equal in the list of races started with John Surtees and Jody Scheckter. Just shows how times have changed. 2) It's 30 years since Nico's Dad Keke won the World Championship. 3) Despite all the variability, the three "Rabbit" teams (Caterham, Marussia and Hispania) don't seem to get any closer. All of the "established" teams have scored points, none of the "newcomers" have. You do have to ask, why do they bother? It is interesting to note that Richard Branston got away having had some fun being a team owner and with his wallet still relatively intact. However someone said he's probably kicking himself for not buying Brawn for a snip then flogging it to Merc for a fortune.
In Brackley, I bet Aldo Costa (recruited by Ross over the winter) smiled a wry smile as he tucked into a celebratory Sunday night Chinese takeaway; sorry, it would undoubtedly have been Sauerbraten.
Click here for FIA lap chart.