Chinese Grand Prix – Still a long way to go
Even before the winter tests in Spain in February had come to an end, the media and “F1 experts” were already talking about Scuderia Ferrari being “in crisis.” This phrase is hardly new, having been used countless times in the 62 year history of the most successful team in the sport. However, in interviews with the press, the drivers and senior management did not deny the fact that the F2012 was displaying some shortcomings in overall performance, particularly on the aerodynamic front and in terms of top speed. There were positives too, such as the Prancing Horse’s inability to get tyres up to temperature quickly, apparently having been solved with this year’s car. However, the opening round in Melbourne showed that the Ferrari did not have the measure of the fastest cars. However, just seven days after he finished fifth in the Australian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso stood on the top step of the Sepang podium and got down from it leading the Drivers’ championship. How could this happen? A miracle? An accelerated one week development programme? Nothing of the sort as the team’s Technical Director Pat Fry explained. “Our position is down to a combination of circumstances, especially the fact that Fernando had two very good races,” began the Englishman. “In Melbourne, after an issue in qualifying, Fernando’s good start and good first corner made up for a lot of things. The weather conditions at the last race worked in our favour, as our car worked well there and he made the most of the opportunities that came his way. We got the pit stop calls right and the pit crew did a fantastic job, so that every time Fernando came into pit lane, we either gained places or extended the lead still further. For Fernando, it’s great to be leading the championship, something I would have not expected just a few weeks ago.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting to have one driver leading the championship. From quite early on in testing, we realised we had quite a few issues we needed to sort out. Everyone at the factory has been working hard at that, as we still have a long way to go. I think our dry qualifying performance is still around 8 tenths off the best while we want to be the best ourselves. Damp low grip conditions suit our car and flatter some of the issues we have with the F2012 at the moment. You could see that in Melbourne on Friday and again in the race in Malaysia.”
While the Scuderia’s Spanish double world champion has his name at the top of the classification, team-mate Felipe Massa has yet to score a point, struggling more with the car balance. “The car is quite difficult to drive and Fernando has managed to get the most out of it, while with Felipe, we have struggled to find the right balance to keep him happy,” admitted Fry. “In addition, in Malaysia, we had Felipe on intermediates after the red flag but we had a lot of understeer and so we took the gamble of an additional pit stop which did not work out. The fact the tyres were only graining and not worn out was about the only call we got wrong from the pit wall at the last race. It was a set-back for Felipe, one of a few unfortunate circumstances for him.”
“If I was asked to rate the overall performance of the Scuderia so far, I’d mark it differently depending on different sections of the company,” continued Fry. “The team, the mechanics at the track have worked very well: in Melbourne we had the quickest pit stops and in Malaysia the speed of the pit crew and the strategy saw us gain position or time on others every time we pitted. However, ranking the actual performance of the package, I’d rate it much lower. Another plus is the way the team is responding, dealing with the stresses of trying to play catch-up. The Manufacturing department, working on some of the more aggressive requests we’ve made, has responded very well. So, it’s been a great team effort, but we haven’t done a good job in getting the car out on track to be quickest from the start.”
Technical development of a Formula 1 car usually moves along two paths: the first one follows a plan set out even as the car is first being designed and built, while the second feeds off lessons learned during testing and races. At the moment, because of the performance shortfall, the Scuderia is also having to move down a third path, which involves trying to speed up development and introduce updates earlier than planned. “We are constantly working on improving the issues we have,” said Fry. “New parts are coming through and we are trying to get them to the race track as quickly as possible – We will have five updates for China, some are quite visible others less so. Then there will be a bigger upgrade package for Spain. It would be nice to have them earlier, but we have already brought forward some parts we were developing for Spain and we should have them in China.”
Naturally, Fry’s main focus is within his own team, but he can allow himself a quick assessment of the F1 hierarchy after the opening back-to-back races. “I was slightly suprised by Red Bull’s comparative lack of pace. McLaren were relatively quick but I would have put these two teams the other way round if you’d asked me a month ago. Mercedes also seem quick, but they have similar rear tyre degradation to the past, so while they are good in qualifying, their race pace drops away and Lotus is the other team that has done a good job, looking quick from the very first test in Jerez.”
There have been eight Chinese Grands Prix to date and Scuderia Ferrari has won three of them, starting with Rubens Barrichello’s victory in the event’s inaugural year, 2004. Then, 2006 and 2007 saw victories for Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen respectively. Fernando Alonso won from pole in 2005, although not at the wheel of a red car and the Spaniard was also on the podium for the two following years in second place. Felipe Massa has also enjoyed the view from the spectacular podium at the Shanghai International Circuit, coming home third in 2007 and doing one better the following year.
The Shanghai circuit is just under five and a half kilometres in length and the facility itself is built on an epic scale as a testament to China’s desire to be the biggest economic powerhouse on the globe. It is one of designer Hermann Tilke’s more challenging track layouts, with many long corners that generate high lateral g-forces, so good overall balance and stability under braking are important aspects of the car package. Pirelli is providing its Soft and Medium compound tyres, but the smooth surface means tyre wear is not usually a problem here, although with few races held during the season, the track can be rather dirty for the first day of practice. “Shanghai is a good mixture,” confirms Fry. “There are long low speed corners where you need a good front end and there’s a requirement to brake and turn in at the same time, so carrying speed through the first corner into the second is particularly interesting. There are some reasonably high speed corners too and a 1.3 kilometre straight with the DRS zone at the end of it should make it interesting for the race.” The Chinese Grand Prix has often been affected by rain and no doubt that would suit the plans of the Scuderia, given Alonso’s wet weather performance in Malaysia…