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Rencken: Uncoding the China GP

2013-04-15 08:19

HOT ON THE LIPS: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel is still very much a talking point after the Chinese GP following the Malaysian GP fiasco. Image: AFP

DIETER RENCKEN

Rather than dousing the flames surrounding Red Bull Racing in Sepang, the three-week gap to Shanghai served, if anything, to keep the controversy on the boil.

Thus, when Formula 1 decamped in China after dedicating the intervening days combatting the country’s arcane visa regime, there was one topic: Sebastian Vettel's defiant attitude towards his team- and -mate Mark Webber.

However, on Friday (April 12) there were two topics: Vettel and Pirelli, the company continuing to come under fire from the losers in Melbourne and Malaysia respectively.

HAMILTON ON POLE

That RRB is in disarray after Malaysia was proven by a simple statistic: Not once during the three practice sessions, qualifying did a blue car top the time sheets, with fastest lap in the race falling to the team via Vettel, but only after he was on the lowest of tanks, best of rubber with the cleanest of air ahead of him as he desperately chased a podium on the final lap.

Which brings us neatly to the issue of rubber: Pirelli had specified its Soft and Medium compounds for a gargantuan stadium circuit “green” through lack of use for 12 months, one with double- and even triple-apex corners (which provoke understeer).

Add in a layout with two DRS zones which encourage cars to enter the two preceding corners in the “dirty” air of their quarry in order to remain in close proximity plus unexpectedly high (for the 2013 season) 24C race day ambients, and a jumbling of the expected order was sure to occur, particularly as RBR seemed out of it.

So it proved, with 2012 winner Nico Rosberg taking FP1 for Mercedes and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso claiming top honours on Friday afternoon/Saturday morning respectively (April 12/13). When Lewis Hamilton in the second silver car annexed pole RBR’s lock out was complete.

When Vettel out-braked himself and slid off in Q3 and Webber stopped out of fuel (shades of Vettel’s Abu Dhabi trick, but the regulations have changed) Red Bull’s nightmare could hardly get worse, wagered some. Yeah?

TYRE WOES

Well, Webber would be relegated to the back of the grid after being unable to provide a fuel sample, while Vettel would line up ninth after sitting out his final run, electing to start on Medium (M) tyres versus the Softs (S) chosen by the sextet in the first three rows. And still there was more during and after the 56-lap race.

Starting alongside Lewis would be Kimi Räikkönen’s Lotus, with Alonso third from Rosberg. The third row was locked out by Massa and Romain Grosjean (Lotus). Thus there were two each Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari in the top six.

However, ultimately the race and podium would come down to tyre degradation, with the choice of strategies fundamentally being S (on full tanks)/M/M/M over three stops, or M/M/M/S (on empty). Only one duo went for two stops - McLaren’s pairing of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez - and that proved a bridge too far and stop too few.

At the “off” Hamilton shot into the lead, followed by Alonso and Massa after Kimi bogged down due to an intra-team misunderstanding over clutch “bite” settings, but the Softs on the leading Mercedes faded faster than the Ferraris’s, and that provided Alonso’s decisive advantage.

After the first round of stops for the Soft runners all the Spaniard needed to do was stick to the textbook, and he would take Ferrari’s first win since Hockenheim in 2012.

Behind him Massa faded after being dropped into traffic after his first stop, so the final two podium places came down to a ding-dong between Lewis and Kimi, the latter running with a damaged nose after being unceremoniously squeezed by Perez.

Rosberg’s retirement - his second in three races due to mechanical strife – made life for those ahead all the easier; until, that is, Vettel pitted for his Softs five laps from the end whilst a distant fourth.

'OUT OF KILTER'

Thereafter the reigning triple World champion took chunks of time out of the third-placed Mercedes, reducing the gap by four seconds on his first Soft lap, then three-and-a-half, then three. All the while Lewis was closing on Kimi as lap traffic loomed. The podium would be a close run thing after his race of non-stop see-sawing as the strategies played out.

Vettel missed the bottom step by just 0,2 seconds and the intermediate step by two, thus proving RBR’s strategic choice was not totally out of kilter, but when the flag fell Alonso was 10 seconds down the road and busy mentally calculating the championship standings as the trio behind him scrapped it out, passing Caterhams and Marussias in a blur of speed along the long back DRS straight en route to the finish of China’s tenth GP.

Alonso said: “Obviously it's a long time since the last victory here, eight years  (2005), and it definitely was nearly a perfect result for us.

“The team did a perfect job with the set-up of the car. We had perfect pit stop times and pit stop execution so at the end of the race the victory is a good reward for all the team and well deserved after the disappointment in Malaysia [when he crashed out after damaging his front wing in an opening lap skirmish].”

Indeed it was a well-nigh perfect job: Before the race Pirelli predicted a S/M/M/M winning strategy with stops between Laps 6-9, Laps 22-26 and Laps 43-49 before the final dash. Alonso ran to S6/M23/M41/M. Asked about his title chances, he was grounded but optimistic: “I think at the moment Lotus and Red Bull and Mercedes they are in the same position as us.

“I don't see anyone having a clear advantage. Maybe Red Bull was very dominant in Australia and in the race they were suffering a little bit deg[radation] but very fast, in Malaysia a bit more in the group and here similar to others, so let's wait and see on the updates every car brings and we'll see how the luck happens.”

His mental arithmetic – something a team insider confided Alonso does on slow-down laps – would show Malaysia winner Vettel to lead the hunt with 52 points to the 49 of Räikkönen, who won the opening round in Australia. With Alonso (43) third, the winners of the opening three rounds (of 19) now occupy the top three championship places.

That they have six hard-won championships between them makes a mockery of comments made by Pirelli’s critics that winning GP’s in 2013 is akin to winning a lottery.

Button’s two-stopper lifted him well beyond the station of McLaren’s rather canine MP4/28, with Massa finishing a disappointed sixth behind the Briton.

Daniel Ricciardo, who qualified an excellent eighth, finished next up for RBR’s sister team Toro Rosso. On this basis the Australian could well replace compatriot Webber, whose weekend went from bad to worse, in the main team.

'NOT A CLASSIC GP'

Having elected to start from the pit lane, Webber tangled with Jean-Eric Vergne in the second Toro Rosso, then lost a wheel after the resulting pit stop. Net result: three-grid-slot penalty in the upcoming Bahrain GP plus RBR fined R60 000 for the wheel issue.

All in, surely a sign of a team in disarray; any wonder rumours surfaced Porschephile Webber signed a five-year deal to lead the marque’s return to Le Mans?

The top ten was completed by Paul di Resta, who survived a first lap scare after tangling with Force India team mate Adrian Sutil, Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg – the latter leading for Sauber during the initial Soft/Medium cross-over point before suffering botched stops and a mysterious car issue in the closing stages.

A classic GP it certainly was not, but one Ferrari will long remember and Red Bull Racing hope to forget, but only after getting to the bottom of its internecine strife.

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