By Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- The rules have changed, but not the results
- McLaren expected to fight for the win
- Jaime Alguersuari answered his critics
"The rules have changed, but not the results"
Those were the wise words spoken by Renault’s Cyril Dumont after yet another victory for a by a Renault engine propelled Formula One car. Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull RB07 were again king of the road, and although this time it wasn’t a one-two, but a one-three victory for Red Bull Racing, they dominated the 24-car strong field during the European Grand Prix at Valencia last weekend.
From the outside it looked a like a walk in the park for the 23-year old German, but it was not as easy as it appeared. During the first stages of the race Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso were close behind Vettel, and just one little mistake or a moment’s loss of concentration during the 57-lap long race could have spelled a change of lead.
But Vettel drove a flawless race in Spain, all he had to do was to maintain his pace and make sure he didn’t make any mistakes on his way to the chequered flag. But his success is also the result of perfect team work, a perfect car, a perfect qualifying session, a perfect strategy and perfectly executed pit stops. This high up the ladder mistakes are not allowed, as Vettel demonstrated during the Canadian Grand Prix, where a tiny mistake during the last lap cost him the victory.
Although he is well on his way to grab this year’s title, some even believe Vettel has the championship already wrapped up and in the bag, the 2010 champion himself remains cautious about his chances for the rest of the season. “It is a long season. We have had a phenomenal start to the season and to continue that way is our target. But we have to go step-by-step and take every single race as it comes,” said Vettel.
“If we have a chance to win then we have to take it. If the day comes and we might struggle and not be competitive enough and the car is only maybe good enough for third -- then we have to finish third and not seventh,” he philosophically remarked. “We have to keep doing what we do and stay hungry, wanting to win races and wanting to become better and better every time.”
The least attractive race
So not many surprises during the race, and the race became the least attractive, or should one say ‘boring’ race, since the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2010. The short lasting exciting moments of the race were mainly seen during the start. Vettel followed his usual strategy and made a clean start, entered Turn 1 in first position and then already started to pull away from the rest. That was the boring part, but behind him both Felipe Massa and Alonso made a dream start, Massa even had a look at Webber for second place, but his team colleague Alonso made a master move on the outside of Turn 1 and took third place from the Brazilian and left Lewis Hamilton, who had started from third position on the grid, behind him as well.
Massa said about his start, “I got a very good start, passing Hamilton and Fernando. Then, I also tried to attack Webber, but he closed the door on me and we almost touched, so Fernando got the chance to go round the outside and pass me back.”
Alonso, now behind Webber, tried to keep up with the Australian, ”At the beginning of the race I was behind him, trying to be not too far and trying to have the benefit in the pit stop and have the opportunity to overtake him,” said Alonso. “It was important to shake off the McLarens immediately, as they were slower than us today, which meant we concentrated on Webber and reached our objective,” the Spaniard explained.
For Vettel the task for the first few laps was simple, he had to make sure he was more than one second ahead of Webber and Alonso before lap three, as the DRS system is enabled after the first two laps of the race. He did just that, and on lap five he was already three seconds ahead of Webber. Alonso followed Webber, but both weren’t quick enough to gain on Vettel, while Massa had to fend off the attacks of Lewis Hamilton. He made a small mistake and ran wide at turn 17, but Hamilton still could not overtake him.
Pit stops and the unknown medium Pirellis
After the first round of pit stops Hamilton got ahead of Massa, and the order was now Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Button. Alonso was right on the tail of Webber, and cheered on by his home crowd he overtook him on lap 21 with the aid of DRS. But he wouldn’t enjoy his second place for long, as Webber again got ahead of him during the second round of pit stops.
The same scenario unfolded during the second stint, Alonso tried to get closer to Webber, but couldn’t overtake him. By now the strategy of the front runners had become apparent, they had done two stints on the soft tyre compound, and thus had to finish the race on the unknown medium compound which hadn’t been tested in race conditions. Again the most important action took place in the pit lane, Webber had pitted for the medium tyres on lap 42 and was now behind Alonso again.
I think the team did a very good strategy, keeping the car out with the soft tyres
The big question was now whether Alonso could hang on to his second place, the Ferrari crew on the pit wall decided Alonso had to stay out four laps longer than Webber, a decision that paid off, Alonso emerged from the pit lane ahead of Webber after he also had switched to the medium compound. Alonso later declared, “I think the team did a very good strategy, keeping the car out with the soft tyres for a couple of laps longer than the Red Bull, and the car performed very well and we overtook him finally on the stops.”
Webber knew the medium compound was a bit of a risk, “I was very happy with how the race was going until the last stop and it was my fault basically. I was worried about Fernando getting the undercut and it was not really known how the medium tyre would behave on the out lap, but it was a risk I decided to take.”
Meanwhile Vettel was still leading and after making his final stop he still had a comfortable 10 second lead on Alonso, who now came under pressure from Webber again. But Webber’s engineer reported he had a gearbox problem and instructed him to short shift while using the lower gears, which meant he had to abandon his attempts to get closer to the Ferrari.
“We had a gearbox problem at the end, so we backed right off, but we had a massive gap to McLaren, so we could cruise to the end and look after the gearbox, I lost out to Fernando, he drove a good race,” Webber said without regret. ”It was a clean, straight fight at the front for the first time since Turkey. It was quite close with all three of us, obviously we were trying to go as fast as possible and manage the tyres at the same time. I learnt a lot today. I was happy with my performance and I will come back better for the next race. ”
Alonso summed up his weekend after the race, “We changed positions between Mark and me and in the end second place is the maximum we can have this day, so being here between the Red Bull cars is a great achievement from the team. We need to keep working and be even closer to these guys in the next Grand Prix.”
McLaren expected to fight for the win
Both McLaren drivers Button and Hamilton are the only drivers who did beat the unbeatable Vettel this season. Hamilton took victory in China, while Button drove the race of his life in Canada and went home with the trophy after Vettel’s unfortunate mistake during the last lap. Hence both drivers were heading to Valencia in an optimistic mood, but soon found out beating Vettel is not an every day occurrence.
Hamilton had a reasonable qualifying session and landed third place on the start grid, but for his colleague Button, qualifying was already an indication it would be come a difficult weekend. The Briton had to settle for sixth place on Saturday, almost one second behind Vettel.
During the start Hamilton was caught by surprise and saw Alonso and Massa go right past him. “I got a poor start and lost out to both Ferraris. After that, it was a long race -- the team asked me to stay out for as long as I could, and I was pushing all the way, but I struggled with oversteer and to be honest didn’t feel totally comfortable with the tyres,” said Hamilton.
In terms of performance, we weren’t as quick today as we’ve been in the last three races
Jenson Button lost one place to Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, “I got a reasonable start, but the field bunched up into Turn 2 and I was stuck on the outside, where I lost out to Nico [Rosberg]. On lap six he finally passed Rosberg, “I didn’t have enough straight line speed to be able to overtake him easily, but I braked really late and got him into Turn 2, which I don’t think he was expecting. That was the highlight of the race for me.”
It became a frustrating race for Hamilton who was certainly not in a position to fight for victory, his McLaren was just too slow compared to the Ferraris and Red Bulls. He also was on the soft-soft-soft-medium tyre strategy like the front runners, but suffered a lot of degradation of the rear tyres. After his first stop he was told by his pit crew his rear tyres were heating up, and Hamilton already showed his frustrations by answering he ‘was not going to drive slower.’
He then made his second stop, this time his team told him to go faster, whereupon an even more frustrated Hamilton reported he ‘was going as fast as he could.’ On his last stop he was on the medium compound and in sixth place, and could take over fourth place after Button and Massa made their last stop. But that was the maximum possible, and he had at least stayed out of trouble after his recent overtaking troubles in Monaco and Canada.
“To be able to finish fourth is still a good result though – and 12 points is a decent haul after the last two races – so I can’t really complain. However, in terms of performance, we weren’t as quick today as we’ve been in the last three races,” he commented on his race.
For Button the race was a disappointment, and after qualifying in sixth position, he also finished the race in sixth position. The McLaren tyre specialist lapped the circuit on the softs for as long as he could and tried to gain some advantage, but after he lost his KERS power the race was over for him. “I pushed the Option [Soft] tyres for as long as I could. Then halfway through the race I lost KERS, which hurt me not only on corner exits but also under braking,” the 2009 champion explained. “So it wasn’t a fun race, all told -- but, given the way the car felt, it’s a pleasant surprise to finish only eight seconds behind one of the Ferraris.”
Schumacher’s Waterloo and Alguersuari’s resurrection
Not a very good weekend for Mercedes, although the German Silver Arrows team is slowly getting on top of their problems, the seventh and eighth place on the start grid for Rosberg and Schumacher, were not a guarantee for success during the race. Rosberg was the most successful of the Mercedes duo, and at least grabbed six points for his seventh place in the race. The German overtook Button at the start, but a few laps later lost his sixth place again.
Seventh place is as good as it gets for Mercedes, but Schumacher’s 17th place was an appalling achievement for the seven-times world champion. Schuey was encouraged by his great performance in Canada, but his hopes for a good result in Valencia was wiped away after he made a very costly mistake after his first stop at lap 14. When exiting the pit lane he was in a rush to get ahead of Vitaly Petrov’s Lotus Renault, but was simply too eager and hit the back of the black and gold car and damaged his front wing.
With his front wing now damaged he had to return to the pit for repairs, but on his way nevertheless overtook Paul di Resta’s Force India with the wing still dangerously dangling from the nose section. When he entered the pit lane again, now with his wing wedged under the front wheels, the car was quickly fitted with a new nose section, but he rejoined the race in 18th and hopeless position. Schumacher’s account of the events , “I saw Petrov quite late, even though I was aware that he was coming, and tried to brake as late as possible and go round the corner with him. But when I wanted to draw back, I locked the front wheel and slipped into him, which was clearly my mistake.”
He crossed the finish line in 17th position, clearly not worthy of a seven-times world champion. Both Mercedes team principals Ross Brawn and Norbert Haug didn’t even mention Schumacher after the race, which for many provided food for thought as to the question whether the now 42-year old driver will take up his option for his third year at the all-German Silver Arrows team.
Another man who faces an uncertain future is Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari of the Italian Red Bull sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso. He has been confronted with many rumors about his future which mainly concentrated on the question if the 21-year old Alguersuari has ‘what it takes’ to become a winner. He has been mentioned to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull, but also his team colleague Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi is equally eager to concur that seat.
During Thursday’s press conference for his second home Grand Prix the Spaniard was again confronted with rumors about his position, but he remained undeterred and mentioned he was ‘quite relaxed’ and ‘quite confident’ about the his possibilities for the future. And indeed he was quite relaxed and did the best thing he could do: he just answered his critics with a very solid performance at the Valencia street circuit and finished the race in eighth position, together with his eighth place in Canada his best result of the season.
Team principal Franz Tost this weekend admitted his team has problems adjusting to the new Pirellis, both Buemi and Alguersuari proved that by just finishing in 17th and 18th place respectively during qualifying. But Alguersuari concentrated on his race setup instead of pointing the finger at the car and the tyres, and his tenacity ultimately paid off.
He waited long before his first pit stop, and by lap 18 he had worked his way up to eighth position behind Rosberg and Button. After he made his first stop one lap later, he did the same during his second stint, stayed out until lap 42, making his second stop from seventh position. He rejoined in 11th place, during the last laps had to defend his position as Adrian Sutil was attacking him, and finally finished in eighth place.
We were able to run at a consistent pace all afternoon, which was the key to this result
“Even though I still struggle to get the best out of the tyres in qualifying, I feel I now have a much better understanding of how to use them in the race and that’s definitely the best way round as the points are only given out after the race!,” an exited Alguersuari said. And added, “We were able to run at a consistent pace all afternoon, which was the key to this result and it’s the first time this season that I have had this feeling from the car and I am happy about that.”
All cars that started finished the race
For the third time in the history of Formula One all cars reached the finish line, the first time was during the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, 15 cars started and finished the race which was won by German Wolfgang von Trips for Ferrari, the second time was the 2005 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, 20 cars started and finished the race, and Juan Pablo Montoya won the race for McLaren.
With all contenders finishing the race, it was also much harder to score points, while Alguersuari took eighth position, Force India driver Sutil and Lotus Renault’s Nick Heidfeld crossed the finish line in ninth and tenth position. Both Germans made it into Q3, but stayed in the garage to save an extra set of softs for the race.
Not a very eventful race for Sutil this time, and also no silly mistakes, and he was content with his two points. The German jumped ahead of Heidfeld after starting from tenth position, and even battled with Schumacher during the first ten laps. “I pushed hard but there was no opportunity to get by him, Sutil said. “In the middle of the race I had some clear track, good race pace and we were up to P8.”
He then started his battle with Alguersuari, “After the final stop, I came out behind Alguersuari, who was doing a two-stop race. I tried all I could to overtake him, but the DRS zone did not make overtaking very easy and I had to settle for P9.”
The man who had to settle for tenth was Heidfeld, after losing his position to Sutil he was hoping a better strategy would help him to get to the front, but instead had to fight hard not to lose more positions. “What cost us a little bit today was our starts,” admitted Heidfeld. “It's still another point gained for the team, but I did not expect to finish behind one Force India and one Toro Rosso.” Not a good race for Petrov either, and he ended up on a disappointing 15th position. “I was very surprised that the tyres did not last very well for us, as some of our competitors were able to do a two-stop race whereas we needed three,” the Russian said. “We know that our car's pace was not fantastic here and the race has strongly highlighted that we have work to do because we should finishing easily in the top ten.”
Also not in the tope ten were di Resta and Buemi, while both their team colleagues did land a top ten position. Di Resta recapped his race, “I’m not sure that we got the strategy quite right today. There were a couple of laps in the first stint where my tyres had gone off and we didn’t stop early enough. We made up for that during the second stop, when I jumped Heidfeld and Barrichello, but I lost out again at my final stop.”
Buemi was also disappointed, although he initially made a good start. “As soon as I had degradation from my tyres, my lap times slowed and I was no longer able to pass other cars,” he said. And added, “Now, immediately after the race, I’m not sure why I was not quick enough, as after the first stint I could no longer match my team-mate’s times, so we will have to look at the data.”
Sergio Perez tried to finish his first race after the Monaco accident on a one stop strategy, he started on the medium tyres and changed to the softs on lap 25, but he suffered from severe tyre degradation as he was simply asking too much from the Pirellis. Because he made two pit stops less than his nearest rivals, he finished in eleventh position. “It was not an easy Grand Prix for a comeback and I’m happy I was able to race again. I gave a hundred percent, but I’m afraid this was the maximum we could get today,” the Mexican said. His team colleague Kamui Kobayashi struggled all race long to find grip and ended up on 16th place, just ahead of the unfortunate Schumacher.
Williams’ Rubens Barrichello had a good start and his three-stop strategy was the right one, but only good enough for 12th position. The Brazilian about his race, “We did not have the car underneath us today. I really pushed myself to the limit though and I’m happy with what I delivered. The team have worked hard to bring lots of upgrades to the car so I’m sorry that we didn’t do better.” Pastor Maldonado was originally on a two-stopper, but he could not get the medium tyres working and had to pit early for softs, which meant he was forced to make a third stop.
Team Lotus duo Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli were pretty happy with their race, but despite their optimism forgot to mention they finished two laps behind the winner on 20th and 21st place. The same can be said of Timo Glock and Jerome d’Ambrisio, they finished in their Marussia Virgin in 21st and 22nd place, also two laps behind the leader. HRT has set their sight on finishing all races this season, in Valencia they succeeded to finish, albeit three laps behind the leader.
Reflections ahead of Silverstone
The FIA decided to ban the off-throttle blown diffusers from the British Grand Prix at Silverstone onwards, and a number of teams are concerned -- although they say they are not -- what that is going to cost them time-wise. Ahead of the European Grand Prix it was predicted Red Bull would lose qualifying time after the FIA had announced changes to the engine mapping between qualifying and the race were no longer allowed, but they proved it didn’t affect them at all.
There were rumors Vettel has been testing the new configuration during the first practice in Valencia, but he could have been testing anything, and it is also very hard to believe as Vettel was 2,5 seconds slower than Webber, which would be a lot slower than is anticipated. The truth is that all teams exactly know how much time they are going to lose, but have of course no intention to tell the world how much that is. Besides that, Formula One designers and engineers are very resourceful, and they will find something else to compensate for the lost downforce.
Regarding the entertainment level, one can rest assured Silverstone will provide an altogether different spectacle, compared to Valencia the circuit has plenty of overtaking opportunities, and it is a very fast circuit where downforce is more important than on street circuits. The high-speed corners will cause a lot of tyre wear, the Pirellis will become an important factor, and the off-throttle ban will be another unknown factor that could decide the race.
Both McLaren and Ferrari have admitted Silverstone is the turning point this season, if they cannot gain points on Red Bull they reckon their chances to win the title this year will become very slim. On the one hand there are still ten races left after Silverstone, on the other hand, Vettel is 77 points or at least three race wins ahead of Button and Webber, and it seems highly unlikely the German will not score any points at all during the next three or four races.
It is also the home Grand Prix of the all-British McLaren team, who will be poised to make a strong impression in front of a home crowd. The complete renovation of the Silverstone circuit that started 1,5 years ago has been completely finished, apart from the renewed section between Abbey and the Brooklands straight, the circuit has recently opened the new pit and paddock area, the Silverstone Wing. The circuit has now an state-of-the-art Wing complex, but also a new media and VIP center, which means Silverstone is now completely ready for the big event on July 10.