Editor's Note: This is John Flood's final story. With great sadness we report John passed away of a sudden heart attack the day after writing this article. John was a passionate race fan and a fine writer, we will miss him as will his many readers worldwide.
The Formula 1 teams are now comfortably ensconced at their home bases in Europe and will spend the summer months and early fall racing on the historical European venues, plus a foray into North America for the Montreal Grand Prix.
The season started with flyaway races (Australia, Malaysia, China, Bahrain) and now transitions to Europe and North America (Spain, Monaco, Canada, Valencia Spain, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Italy) for an extended period before heading out at the end of the year to again visit faraway flyaway events (Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Austin, Brazil).
The first four races of the season have been exceptional. We have had four different winners, eight different drivers on the podium, a first time winning driver, Nico Rosberg, and a first time winning team, Rosberg’s Mercedes F1 Team. We have also had great drives from relative newcomers, Mexico’s Sergio Perez and France’s Romain Grosjean. They have both been on the podium and neither has more than one year’s experience, and their teams, Sauber and Lotus respectively, have not been on the podium in quite some time. Grosjean’s teammate, former world champion Kimi Räikkönen, also took his Lotus to the podium for the first time after his two year absence from F1.
The return to Europe is important in that the teams can make very few improvements to the cars during the flyaway races — the logistics are very difficult to manage.
We have had three former world champions on the top step of the podium — Alonso, Button, and Vettel — all representing different teams and different countries of origin. The team that won the last two driver’s and constructor’s championships, Team Red Bull and driver Sebastian Vettel, have not been the dominant force they had been the last two championship years, but they have, via consistency, managed to lead the points standings in both categories. Fascinating!
McLaren, Lotus, Mercedes and Red Bull all have the speed to be at the front, and Ferrari is close behind thanks to Alonso’s skill at getting more speed from the car than should be expected. Occasionally Sauber, Williams or Scuderia Toro Rosso will work their way into the top ten and move one of the top teams down the grid. It has been an interesting start to the season.
The return to Europe is important in that the teams can make very few improvements to the cars during the flyaway races — the logistics are very difficult to manage. They are constantly travelling at great distance from the team factory and the race events are closely spaced.
Back at the home base, the teams use all of the data gathered during the early flyaway races. Design flaws are detected at the factory, design improvements are developed and the improvements are deployed at the European races.
For 2012, the teams agreed to a rare in-season test at Ferrari’s privately owned Mugello test circuit. The test was conducted last week after the early season flyaway races but before the first European races. All in-season testing was banned after the 2009 season in order to reduce costs. This test was an exception to the rule.
There were few noticeable design changes evident at the Mugello tests, as most changes were very subtle and needed to be compared to before/after spy photos to detect. However, McLaren did display a radically redesigned nose and new front wing in the closing hours. Their design keeps the required maximum height for the regulated section, but raises the nose’s approach from the cockpit forward. It avoids the step seen on the nose of all the other cars, but accomplishes the same aero effect by opening the space below the structural base of the nose to convey more air flow to the rear aero structures. They intend to employ this development at this weekend’s GP in Barcelona Spain.
The competitiveness of the season is really down to two things: The revised rules that eliminated the exhaust blown diffuser, and the new tire compounds introduced by Pirelli. Of the two, the tires are the most significant.
The competitiveness of the season is really down to two things: The revised rules that eliminated the exhaust blown diffuser, and the new tire compounds introduced by Pirelli.
Pirelli’s intent was to make tires that could not be driven aggressively for every lap of a tire’s stint. By stint, I mean that tires are changed during the race based on strategy and the laps are divided into stints in order to determine the number of pit stops necessary for tire changes.
To drive aggressively means that more stops for tire changes are necessary. Smooth and conservative driving means that fewer stops are required. The strategy comes into play in that one must consider the time lost while in the pits changing tires to the extra speed gained when on fresh rubber. If the time spent in the pits changing tires does not yield a pace that compensates for the time lost while making the stop, no advantage is gained.
Some drivers make one stop and drive conservatively to protect the tires while some make two stops while protecting the tires but “use them up” while overtaking a very stubborn competitor. Other drivers make threes stops, run every lap aggressively, put up very fast lap times but suffer position losses while in the pits. All of the drivers adjust the strategy as the landscape of the race reveals itself.
A result of this is that some teams make brilliant strategic decisions, and some do not.
The exhaust blown diffuser ban hurt some teams more than others, particularly Team Red Bull as their solution was the most highly developed and efficient on the grid. This partially explains their early season results. They have worked to gain back the aero advantage lost due to the rules change while few other teams seem to be that bothered by the new regulations.
The usefulness of the teams’ efforts to learn and improve their cars based on the early season flyaway race data will be tested for the first time this weekend at the GP of Spain in Barcelona. This is their first chance to take advantage of the technical developments deployed after the teams returned to their home bases after the long flyaway slog.
The results of the Spanish GP will be indicative of each team’s true promise for the remainder of the season, but Barcelona will not be a definitive assessment of the remainder of the season as there are too many variables.
That’s the way I like it!