Month: April 2014

Issue 12: Chinese Grand Prix Review

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21 April 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a lights-to-flag victory. His team-mate Nico Rosberg made a poor start and spent most of the race fighting to overtake the Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari to finish a distant second. Alonso drove brilliantly to claim third finishing only 1.5 seconds ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who in turn trounced Sebastian Vettel. McLaren endured a pointless afternoon.

Forza Fernando!

The Chinese Grand Prix sadly did not match the thriller in Bahrain two weeks ago. This was largely due to Nico Rosberg’s poor qualifying and getaway from the grid. This saw him slip down the order at the start and ensured Hamilton would go unchallenged at the front. The Briton was once again in imperious form. His victory, the third in a row, together with a hat-trick of poles, meant that he is the indisputable winner of this first phase of the 2014 F1 World Championship. Hamilton is currently out-driving and out-thinking Rosberg. He is still four points behind his rival in the title race, but there’s no doubting which Mercedes driver holds the momentum. Hamilton reaffirmed the value of leading from the front and repeated his trick of going that bit faster than the competition whilst using less fuel. By the end of the Grand Prix, he’d used in the region of 7% less fuel than the Red Bulls and about 4% less than Alonso, but finished over 23 seconds ahead of the first non-Mercedes car. Quite a margin. Some will argue that it is easy to dominate with such a car advantage, but for how long has Hamilton had to watch as others – mostly Vettel – enjoy the sort of car that he has underneath him now? Nevertheless, the most impressive driver was surely the Spaniard in his Ferrari. To come home ninth in Bahrain was embarrassing, but Alonso drove like hell to finish third in China. He dragged that under-performing car well clear of the Mercedes customer teams and even the Red Bulls. Alonso launched off the line and in his true fighting style, brushed off a collision with Felipe Massa’s Williams at the start, to give the Scuderia the perfect tonic after their dismal race in Round 3. This was no taxi drive. The contrast with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen’s performance could not have been stronger. He finished over a minute ahead of the Finn. You just don’t do that to other world champions. Yes, Raikkonen struggled with the set-up of his F14-T from Practice One in Friday morning, but that gap will make uncomfortable reading for the ‘Ice Man’.

The usual characters, namely Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg and Valtteri Bottas, put in the other stand-out performances of the race. Ricciardo in particular, is making a habit of sticking it to his illustrious team-mate. Again, we heard: Red Bull to Vettel: ‘Seb, let Ricciardo through he is faster than you’. Eventually, Vettel yielded to the Australian upstart (on Lap 26), but did not follow him home by any means. The German finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate. And not only did he leave Vettel for dead, Ricciardo spent the last few laps worrying Alonso in another of his now trademark gritty drives that make him so entertaining to watch. Ricciardo’s qualifying performances at Toro Rosso in 2013 indicated his speed, but to race the way he has done against a multiple world champion shows real mettle. Vettel’s problems reportedly centre around his inability to find the corner entry performance he wants from the car together with difficulties in preserving the tyres. That the German is struggling to adapt is somewhat of a surprise, but perhaps he is still driving to a level that the RB10 is not yet capable of. In any case, Ricciardo’s grit and Vettel’s toils make for a fascinating – and very welcome – intra-team battle at Red Bull.

The Hulk and Bottas once again showed their class as best finishers of the Mercedes customer teams. In the process, they put into perspective the pretty dismal performance of the other Mercedes-powered team, McLaren.

What’s happened to McLaren?

It was McLaren’s turn to look red-faced post-race after Button and Magnussen finished a lap down in 11th and 13th respectively in Shanghai. The double podium finish they achieved in Melbourne must feel like a long time ago now. It seems that the MP4-29 has a narrow performance window; if the track and ambient temperatures are too hot, as in Sepang, McLaren struggle to get the most out of the car due to the cooling demands required. However, if it’s too cold, Button and Magnussen can’t get enough heat into the tyres, the fronts in particular, so they grain. On current form, McLaren are the third-fastest Mercedes customer team, which is a pretty bad place to be for a team with such heritage. A lot is riding on their upgrade package for the next round in Spain.

The second-place championship battle behind Mercedes

True to expectations, the Chinese Grand Prix demonstrated that the competitive order behind Mercedes will switch around this year. Alonso showed that Ferrari can rise phoenix-like from a poor performance in the previous race, thanks to some upgrades, a good qualifying and a strong start. Likewise, Williams qualified well despite the wet weather, indicating that they are getting on top of the set-up of the FW36 and adding downforce. However, they again struggled to convert their speed into strong points, which is becoming an unfortunate theme for them this season. Apart from introducing unpredictability into the racing, the ever-evolving competitive order will mean that the battle for second – or perhaps that should be third – in the championship will be close for much of the year. At every race, Red Bull have been at or near the top of the battle for second overall. However, they’re being aided – if indeed they need any help – by the fact that at one race they’re battling a Force India and the next a Ferrari. In short, the Mercedes customer teams and Ferrari are taking points off each other for the benefit of Red Bull and their charge to second place. To catch Mercedes, as Red Bull have said at every opportunity, they need Renault to deliver more power. They’re probably right. The speed trap figures from China showed Red Bull firmly rooted to the bottom, some 12mph slower than Mercedes. However, not all the Renault-powered runners are that slow in a straight line. Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham, for example, was only 4mph slower than Mercedes. So Renault’s new specification, which enabled its teams to get more out of the Energy Recovery System, has made a difference to some of its teams following its introduction in Bahrain and China. But not Red Bull. This suggests that the performance differential between Mercedes and Red Bull is not purely powertrain-related. We know that their chassis is as good if not better than the Mercedes, so perhaps they’re not getting enough out of the tyres.

The circus travels to Spain for Round 5 in three weeks’ time.

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Issue 11: Chinese Grand Prix Preview

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16 April 2014

The grandeur of the Shanghai International Circuit, which will host Round 4 of the F1 world championship, hasn’t been accompanied by any grand local interest in F1 in the last few years. The grandstands at Shanghai are usually characterised by swathes of empty seats, which makes the event feel somewhat sterile. Perhaps there would be a better turnout if a Chinese driver lined up on the grid.

Like Sepang and Sakhir, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the Shanghai circuit. Other than the gigantic grandstand on the start/finish straight, Shanghai’s main feature is the 0.7-mile long straight in Sector 3. This requires a car with good top speed, especially in the second phase of the straight when overtaking moves come to fruition. However, to be in a position to challenge the car in front, it is crucial to have good traction to launch off Turn 13. The driver must also get a clean exit to maximise his chances of passing vulnerable competitors. Out-dragging another car here or out-braking it in the big stop for Turn 14 where the cars decelerate from over 200 miles per hour to around 50 miles per hour certainly offers the best overtaking spot. The braking zone at the end of the start/finish straight provides similar passing opportunities. The rest of the lap is characterised by plenty of slow and medium-fast corners that reward cars with good downforce and driveability. Sector 1 is notable for its  interminable complex of Turns 1-4 that tightens on entry before opening out again on the exit of Turn 3. A car with strong rear-end downforce is needed to stop the rear tyres from sliding and overheating. Cars that are kinder on their tyres will also be better placed to manage the high energy loads going through the front tyres in this series of corners. A strong front-end can also help counteract any likely understeer here or in Turn 6. Anyone diving up the inside of Turn 1 for an overtake might find themselves defending hard into Turn 2 if they’ve not made a clean pass. Sector 2 of the lap is composed of fast and flowing corners, especially between the exit of Turn 6 and the braking zone for Turn 9.

Thinking back to previous years, I’m not overwhelmed by a flood of memorable races at Shanghai. The 2006 running was notable for the mid-race lead battle between Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari and the Renaults of Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella. The 2009 event was severely rain-affected, but it gave Red Bull their first win in F1 and hinted at the period of dominance to come, with Vettel finishing over 40 seconds in front of the first non-Red Bull car. 2010 was also rain-affected and caused some big names, including Hamilton and Vettel, to put in some frantic drives through the field after being caught out by the weather.

Hamilton v Rosberg – Round 4

Dry weather permitting, it almost goes without saying that Mercedes will secure another front row lockout and a 1-2 finish in the race. However, long-range weather forecasts indicate that a wet qualifying session is on the cards, likely negating the Mercedes runners’ power advantage and giving Red Bull and Ferrari the chance to start further up the grid. A dry race is forecast, so the real question is which Mercedes driver will come out on top on Sunday. It’s a close call as both Hamilton and Rosberg have scored points in the unfolding psychological battle. In the Bahrain Grand Prix, for example, Rosberg showed that he had the will and capability to respond strongly to being outdriven in Malaysia while Hamilton demonstrated that he can still triumph even when the car is not fully to his liking. Both are important qualities, but the ability to win in a car that’s not 100% to their liking is what marks out the very best drivers from the best, in my view. In 2014, Hamilton appears to have a found a way to use slightly less fuel than Rosberg, but go slightly faster. Both Mercedes drivers have won at Shanghai before, Hamilton in 2008 and 2011 and Rosberg in 2012, but I get the feeling that Hamilton relishes this place more. My money is on Hamilton to edge out his team-mate again.

Watch out for Daniel Ricciardo!

Behind the Mercedes, I expect it to be battle rejoined between Red Bull and the Mercedes customer teams. The RB10 is likely to perform strongly in Turns 1-4 and Sector 2 of the lap where downforce is required for best mid-corner performance and to minimise the tyres sliding. Furthermore, Red Bull has apparently switched to shorter gear ratios, which will give Vettel and Ricciardo better acceleration in the initial phase of the straights. However, if a Mercedes-powered car gets anywhere near the back of an RB10, it will probably be a sitting duck. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to another feisty drive from Daniel Riccardo. Of the Mercedes-powered teams, Force India has proven that it is kind on its tyres, which will no doubt help Perez and Hulkenberg deal with some of the high front tyre loadings and offer them more flexibility on pit stop strategy. Expect them to be up there with Red Bull. The comparatively lower temperatures at Shanghai should help Mclaren, who’s race appeared to suffer in Sepang in part due to the extreme cooling demands. Williams are likely to start further back on the grid if qualifying is wet, unless they’ve managed to add some rear-end downforce to their car since Bahrain. It will be exciting to watch Bottas and Massa come through the field again as the FW36 is quick. Given that Shanghai is not too tough on fuel consumption, some of the Mercedes runners might opt to start with less than 100kg of fuel, such is the efficiency of their turbo and ERS.

Finally, Ferrari will have to hope that their experience in Sakhir is not repeated in Shanghai. The F-14 T is clearly down on maximum power and driveability, which will make Alonso and Raikkonen vulnerable on the straights. It’s likely to be another painful Sunday afternoon for the Scuderia unless they’ve improved their car.