F1 taking new position on pole?
IS POLE UP THE POLE?: Lotus F1's Kimi Raikkonen, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Lotus F1’s Romain Grosjean on the podium after the 2013 Bahrain F1 GP. Vettel won ahead of Raikkonen and Grojean so did pole have any impact? Image: AFP
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
MANAMA, Bahrain - In China a week ago, asked whether he was concerned that Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa had out-qualified him four times in a row, Fernando Alonso shrugged off the matter before opining that grid position was no longer crucial.
“Qualifying this year is less important,” he said. “It’s been losing importance year after year. There were years when it was vital to start from the first row or from pole but since Pirelli arrived qualifying has become less and less important.”
On race day in Shanghai he started third before going on to score a dominant win after jumping the two cars ahead during the opening laps.
In Bahrain on Sunday (April 21) winner Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) started second, fell back, regained position and overhauled pole-starter Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg – who ultimately ended ninth – in the opening stages. The reigning triple champion was not headed again save during reshuffles after his three stops.
Adding further credence to Alonso’s theory was the fact that China pole man Lewis Hamilton finished third for Mercedes while in the desert second-and third-placed Lotus team mates Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean started eighth and 11th respectively.
In Australia Vettel scored pole but Raikkonen won; in Malaysia Mark Webber was ahead when pole-starter Vettel nicked victory to spoil the 2013’s year-to-date symmetry of the winner coming from other than pole. In fact, save for the Sepang Shuffle, the last lights-to-flag winner was Vettel in India back in October 2012.
All this points to tyre management being crucial throughout a race weekend whether during free practice, qualifying or the GP. In Sakhir Vettel was quickest only once – when it counted – with all four preliminaries going elsewhere. Thus he had three sets of new Hards for the race…
His task was, of course, made all the easier by Fernando Alonso’s effective demise after the Spaniard’s DRS jammed open in the race, making the Ferrari an extremely rapid handful due to a sudden unplanned absence of both downforce and drag.
The subsequent enforced stop dropped the 2005/6 champion to 16th from whence he fought back valiantly to end eighth despite being hampered by a top-speed deficit while overtaking in the DRS zones.
Also having a brilliant race was Paul di Resta, the Scot who started fifth before putting in a particularly robust opening lap, poised for the podium until the Lotuses passed his Force India by stealth to sandwich him in fourth. Interestingly, like Raikkonen, he stopped twice, while Grosjean, like the winner, chose three – so first and third on three; second and fourth on two.
Tellingly, Kimi and Paul were the race’s only two-stoppers.
Vettel ran to a Medium Used, Hard New ((Lap 10), Hard New (25), Hard New (42) strategy; Grosjean to HN, HN (8), MU (27), MU (42). The two-stoppers, though, ran to similar strategies: MU, HN, HN, each stopping around laps 15 and 35.
Fifth place? Lewis Hamilton (MU, MU, HN, HN) from ninth after a gearbox penalty, on three stops like sixth and seventh-placed Sergio Perez (McLaren) and Webber – last-named starting seventh after carrying over a three-place grid penalty from China.
Setting aside for obvious reasons Alonso’s four stops, ninth and 10th-placed drivers Rosberg and Jenson Button (McLaren) each headed down the pits lane four times – that’s the same silky-smooth JB who made a two-stopper work brilliantly in China. Spot the rhyme and/or reason? There ain’t any…
However, such vastly different strategies delivered extremely close racing. True, 20 seconds separated third from first, but throughout the 96-minute race there were dices up and down the field. McLaren shaved McLaren, Webber’s Red Bull tangled with Rosberg, Massa with Adrian Sutil.
Two DRS zones helped, of course – having, though, spoiled the spectacle in Shanghai – but Pirelli’s belated choice of Hards and Mediums made all the difference here, for there was but a half-seconds a lap between them, yet the former was good for around 20 laps; the softer specification half that.
Originally the Italian company had specified Hards and Softs, but a massed outcry in Malaysia caused a change of heart and in retrospect the decision was clearly warranted as both thermal degradation and a sandy circuit after the to date highest-temperatures season and the constant presence of desert winds which blew the region’s shifting grains across the surface killed traction. Imagine Softs under such conditions.
That said, teams should be careful what they wish for, for their lobbying has resulted in Pirelli’s compounds for the Spanish GP on May 12 still not having been announced – the first time since the company entered the sport n 2011 that not at least a race’s notice has been given. They should also realise that Red Bull’s RB09 is markedly better on harder compounds.
Adding to Pirelli’s woes is that few in the paddock remain totally convinced that Hamilton’s tyre failure during Saturday practice and two right-rear “pops” on Massa’s Ferrari – which dropped the hapless Brazilian to 15th – were due to debris damage.
In the end Bahrain’s ninth GP was all about management: tyre and security. While massed military forces ensured the event went off without a hitch – albeit with even less populated stands than a year earlier – it required a totally different level of strategic thinking to come out tops in the race – and hence the identical podium to 2012, with all three cars powered by Renault.
Vettel said after his 28th career win: “I could feel that I was able to pull away and the medium compound felt pretty strong but then we had three sets of new Hards and for us the car seemed to work very well on those tyres.
“I realised in the second stint that I was able to open a gap so I thought, ‘right, I’ll take my chance as much as I can to pull away’. Because you know it can only help at the end of the race, you don’t know what is going to happen.”
For Vettel victory was set up well before the race, the German conserving rubber all the way through and covering just enough laps to get his set-up perfect. But Kimi’s second was arguably the 2007 World champion’s best-yet performance: to complete a full GP in such conditions on two stops while making up five places was nothing short of incredible.
But it does beg one or two questions:
• What was Formula 1 doing in Bahrain under the circumstances?
• Was it really Grand Prix racing, or simply a three-day regularity run through the desert?
Whatever, in the end Vettel took 25 well-earned points to boost his score to 77 after four rounds to lift him 10 clear of Raikkonen. Put differently, in the Constructors’ championship Ferrari, third behind Red Bull and Lotus, has 77 points…