Month: April 2015

Issue 53: 2015 Bahrain Grand Prix Forecast

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16 April 2015

F1’s shifting sands

The Sakhir International Circuit hosts Round 4 of the season. That is, if the pit lane and track has been cleared of sand following the sandstorm that hit Bahrain earlier this week. In 2014, Bahrain served up an absolute cracker of a Grand Prix, which the Mercedes drivers set alight in the final phase of the race after the Safety Car had bunched up the field. Hamilton had track position but was racing on the slower Medium tyre. Rosberg was right behind him and on the faster Soft tyre. The Briton held on to take victory by putting in a defensive driving masterclass. However, it was edge of the seat stuff for the final 10 laps!

Somehow, a bland circuit located in a featureless desert had managed to produce thrilling racing. Can the fans expect more of the same in 2015?

We can certainly expect plenty of overtaking. Sakhir has four long straights where the cars reach speeds of 190mph before slamming on the brakes for slow-speed corners. The start/finish straight in particular offers a good chance to slipstream past other cars while those late brakers can make Daredevil moves dives down the inside into Turn 1. There are similar opportunities to pass on the straights between Turns 3 and 4 and Turns 10 and 11 (DRS-assisted). The constant pattern of acceleration, hard braking and re-acceleration, especially in Sectors 1 and 3, stresses the tyres, brakes and fuel consumption. Tyre management as well as engine power and driveability are at a premium. Additionally, the track surface at Sakhir is highly abrasive, which compounds the thermal degradation experienced by the tyres. In short, the hot track temperature, rough surface and traction demands mean that Bahrain will be a rear tyre-limited race. As well as higher than average thermal tyre degradation to contend with, sand drifting onto the track often reduces grip levels too.

In Sector 2, good high-speed balance in order to take on the medium and fast corners like Turns 6 and 12 as well as stability under braking for the tricky Turn 10 are required in order to set a quick time in this sector. However, cars with a sensitive aerodynamic platform will struggle more in this sector if, as is possible, there is a cross wind blowing across the circuit.

The race will start at 6pm local time, but night falls at around 6.30pm. This means that the track surface is likely to cool throughout the Grand Prix, reducing the thermal degradation on the tyres. Practice 2 will probably provide the best indicator of race performance given that it is also scheduled to begin at 6pm.

Battle rejoined between Mercedes and Ferrari?

What a difference 12 months make. A year ago at Sakhir, the two red cars from Maranello were being overtaken by Force Indias. Now, Ferrari are threatening the Silver Arrows. In the history of sporting turnarounds, Ferrari’s story in 2015 has gotta be up there. But can they topple mighty Mercedes in Bahrain?

I think we’re in for another racing spectacle in Bahrain. My expectation is that whilst the Mercedes will lock out the front row in qualifying, or at least secure pole position, Ferrari will be a factor in the first half of the race when the track is likely to be at its hottest. The heat, combined with the abrasive surface and the constant pattern of braking and acceleration, will probably strain Mercedes’ rear tyres more than Ferrari’s at this early stage of the Grand Prix. Assuming they qualify well, Vettel and Raikkonen will surely be well-placed to pressure Hamilton and Rosberg and perhaps even gain track position over one or both of them in the first round of pitstops.

The race looks to be a two-stopper (not even a Force India kind on its tyres last season could manage a one-stop race in the 2014 event), but Ferrari’s superior tyre management will give them the option of undercutting Mercedes in the first pitstops or overcutting them to spend longer on the faster Soft tyre before pitting for the Medium.

However, as the track cools during the night and the cars switch over to the Medium tyre, expect Mercedes to come racing back at Ferrari if the German marque has lost track position. It’s entirely conceivable that the two Mercedes will need to pass one or both Ferraris on track to win. I hope I’m right, because if so, I cannot wait for the battle!

Forecasting this one is tough, but I will say Hamilton again by a whisker from Vettel.

Further down the field, it’s reasonable to expect Williams will come home in fifth and sixth, but Bottas and Massa will face a challenge from Lotus, Sauber and possibly Toro Rosso and Red Bull as they appear to be struggling for low-speed downforce and high degradation on the Soft compound tyre. At the lower end of the Top 10, I expect a tight battle given Sauber’s impressive straight-line speed and Lotus’ driveability and power. This will be a good scrap!

Red Bull’s ability to fight Williams will probably hinge on them solving their car set-up problems and getting more power from their Renault engine. Meanwhile, after their double-finish in China, I expect McLaren to continue on their upward curve of competitiveness. The Top 10 is likely to still be out of reach, at least until Spain, if not later, however, McLaren’s progress up the competitive order is steady.

@TheWheelspinner

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Issue 52: 2015 Chinese Grand Prix Post-Race Analysis

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14 April 2015

Battlegrounds of the mind

Nico’s fuming. Lewis was deliberately backing him into Sebastian Vettel’s prowling Ferrari, wasn’t he? These were underhand tactics by the world champion. Lewis was out for himself in Shanghai. He was prepared to put the team’s chances of a second 1-2 finish in 2015 at risk so that he could win.

This is Nico Rosberg’s narrative of the Chinese Grand Prix.

Whether accurate or not, this is the starting gun in another intense intra-Mercedes driver rivalry. The cold war of Winter 2014-15 has just turned hot!

The bones of Nico’s beef with ‘the guy in first place’ is that in the second phase of the Grand Prix, Hamilton was not driving as quickly as his car would allow. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? If you’re in a close second place, you want to catch the guy in front. If he’s opted to drive slower that makes it easier, right. However, the problem for Rosberg was that if he got too close to Hamilton, the wake or ‘dirty air’ from the leader’s car would disrupt the airflow over his car and cause his tyres to work harder, degrading them faster. This would leave him vulnerable to Vettel, who was only a handful of seconds behind. If Hamilton sped up, Rosberg could pull out a bigger gap to Vettel and make second place safe. The Mercedes strategist seemed to agree. Hamilton was twice told to pick up his pace. He duly delivered the lap times demanded of him.

However, on Laps 31 and 32, as the second round of pitstops approached, Hamilton produced two stunning laps, a second/lap faster than anyone else had managed up to that point. There was plenty of life left in his Pirellis. Post-race, this will have served only to fuel Rosberg’s suspicions.

Whether intentional or not – and I happen to think it was – Hamilton deliberately drove within himself and his car. He used the threat from Ferrari to his advantage at the expense of his team-mate. By driving tactically, Hamilton maintained an artificially small gap between himself, Rosberg and Vettel. This forced Rosberg to worry as much – if not more so – about defending from Vettel as attacking Hamilton. This approach by the world champion carried some risk, however, as it might have compromised the team’s chances of a 1-2 finish. What if something had gone wrong at Rosberg’s second pitstop, which then enabled Vettel to jump the German? A bigger gap to the Ferrari in third place would have mitigated this risk. Still, Hamilton did not take this approach to the extreme. Vettel prowled behind the Mercedes, but he was never truly within striking distance or Rosberg. Nevertheless, the intended effect of these tactics had been achieved. Rosberg’s attention was divided due to the ever-present threat of the ‘undercut’ by Ferrari in the pitstops. This was clear from Rosberg’s frustrated radio calls on Lap 21. He sounded unsure of his best move. Attack Hamilton or defend from Vettel? His was a world of indecision and uncertainty. Hamilton, by contrast, had clarity of thought and purpose.

The battle of the mind was being won by the Briton.

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The dynamics of driver rivalries

Formula 1 has experienced many great driver rivalries in its 65-year history. Mansell vs Piquet, Hunt vs Lauda and Senna vs Prost stand out. In stature at least, I’m not comparing Hamilton or Rosberg to either Senna or Prost. However, all driver rivalries have some common dynamics. One driver often holds the initiative and their main competitor attempts to wrest it back. Both drivers will of course attempt to produce their best on-track performances in order to prevail, but for one driver that won’t necessarily be enough to defeat their rival. This is usually when other tactics come into play, such as psychological pressure or gamesmanship to knock the driver holding the initiative out of his stride. One driver might attempt to build the team around them to isolate their rival, if they’re both racing for the same team.

Perceptions of underhand racing tactics or their rival getting preferential treatment from the team usually serve as triggers for escalation in tight rivalries. In Hamilton vs Rosberg so far in 2014-15, the use of psychological pressure, gamesmanship and the perceptions of underhand tactics have stoked this rivalry. Think Bahrain, Monaco, Hungary and Belgium in 2014. And now China in 2015.

One factor likely to compound the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg further in 2015 is the higher probability that Mercedes will need to employ different strategies and even apply team orders in order to beat Ferrari at some races. When Mercedes are forced to back their quickest driver or the driver holding track position, this will almost certainly disadvantage the other Mercedes driver, likely feeding their suspicion and bitterness and playing into an increasingly toxic rivalry.

The Silver Arrows strike back

Ferrari threatened in Shanghai. But they were slapped back down to second after daring to beat the all-conquering Mercedes in Malaysia. The surprise in China was the track temperature, which stood at 46 degrees centigrade at the start. Vettel gamely held on to the Mercedes in the first phase of the race, but it in the second phase, it soon became clear that Mercedes (Hamilton) was not driving on the limit, somewhat flattering Ferrari only a few seconds adrift. Hamilton’s hot laps on Laps 31 and 32 showed the true performance of the Mercedes on the Soft tyre. This was a second/lap quicker than anything Vettel had managed on the same tyre.

However, it was only when Mercedes and Ferrari had switched to the Medium tyre, that Ferrari’s inability to keep pace with Hamilton and Rosberg became truly evident. For Ferrari, this revealed the downside of being able to keep their Pirelli tyres intact on hot track surfaces: the Scuderia still struggle to get the harder compounds of Pirelli tyres to warm up sufficiently on cooler track surfaces. Mercedes, on the other hand, do not have this problem. As a result, Hamilton bettered Vettel’s lap times on every lap after they had both switched to the Medium tyre. And by the time the Safety Car had been deployed on Lap 54, Hamilton was around 20 seconds ahead of Vettel. If they had raced to the end and if Hamilton had driven to the limit of his Soft tyres in the second phase of the race, this gap would likely have been nearer 25-30 seconds at the flag. When the conditions are right, Mercedes are still an unstoppable force.

New kid on the block

Red Bull are bold. Letting a 17-year old loose in an F1 car is not lightly done. However, Max Verstappen can really drive. More to the point, he can really overtake. Verstappen put in some great moves that really lit up the midfield battleground. My favourite was his overtake on Marcus Ericsson under braking for Turn 14 on Lap 9 when he dived down the inside surprising Ericsson. A great swashbuckling move, in the style of Lewis Hamilton!

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@TheWheelspinner