Posts Tagged ‘Sepang’

What a thrilling qualifying session… One of the best I’ve seen in recent memory, with 4 tenths of a second covering 1st to 8th place… Yesterday we had predicted that pole would be around the 01:36.4 mark, so we were reasonably close (Hamilton’s pole laptime was 01:36.219), we are therefore able to confirm in a 2nd race in a row that the 2012 cars are about 1.6 – 1.7% down in performance in comparison to the 2011 cars. There are a few key observations I wish to make regarding today’s qualifying:

1. Hamilton lost a couple of tenths in the last corner of his pole lap, by locking the brakes and sliding, which means that the pole could have been as low as 1:36 dead. This is further supported by Vettel’s lap (01:36.634) on the hard compound, which is said to be around 0.5 seconds slower than the medium compound. Theoretically, therefore, Vettel could have also done a lap in the 01:36.1 bracket. In practice, however, this is debatable. Perhaps Red Bull weren’t very comfortable with the medium compound, and couldn’t extract enough laptime to justify starting the race with it. Vettel’s run on the medium tyre in Q2 was a bit underwhelming, and perhaps that’s what forced Red Bull to decide to gamble with the hard tyre in Q3. In hindsight, seeing the kind of lap time Vettel was able to extract, perhaps it would have been wiser to go for the medium compound, but it will all be judged on how the race evolves tomorrow.

2. For the 2nd time in a row Michael outperforms Rosberg in qualifying – even more comfortably this time. Both drivers have been fairly evenly matched throughout the practice sessions, Q1 and Q2, but Michael was, once again, able to dig deeper in Q3 and produce a very good lap. This is exactly the opposite phenomenon of what we were treated to last year, when Michael would reach his maximum in Q1 and Q2 but Nico was invariably able to get more laptime out of the car in Q2 and Q3 (you can refresh your memory by visiting our 2011 season statistical analysis). Michael’s lap in Q3 looked inch perfect, and I don’t think there was much more time that could be drawn from the car. In any case, it’s great seeing Michael at the sharp end of the grid, which at the age of 43 is simply a mind-boggling achievement. I simply can’t get my head around it.

3. Williams need at least one driver who knows what he’s doing. Before the season started I was of the opinion that Senna deserved a decent chance with a solid F1 team, but after what I’ve seen so far, I am reluctantly willing to admit that he just doesn’t cut it. Both cars should have been in front of Alonso and Perez, yet they both failed to make it to Q3. Maldonado’s mistake ruined Q2 for a lot of people, including Mercedes who had to use another set of medium tyres to get through. Pastor, speaking about his Melbourne mistake, said that he learnt from that mistake. Well, if mistakes are lessons, Pastor should have a couple of effing PhDs by now. The harsh truth is that neither driver can do what Williams desperately need: score points, consistently. It’s a shame having to watch Williams throw away a perfectly promising season. I presume it’s impossible to kick either driver out at this moment, so one can only hope that Pastor will try to minimize his mistakes, because his baseline, raw speed seems to be pretty decent. Senna needs at least half a second more in terms of raw pace, and I’m sorry but there’s no way in hell he can find that in himself. Please give Valteri a chance, Williams…

4. There is a huge gap between the top runners and the midfield. Ferrari’s best was still 1.347 seconds off the pace, and that’s utterly deplorable. Felipe performed better this time, his lap time just a few tenths shy of Alonso’s best. It was obvious that Felipe was extremely downbeat throughout the session, so credit where credit’s due: to be within a few tenths off Alonso’s best whilst under that amount of pressure is commendable. Alonso finished (just) ahead of the midfield pack, which is the best one can expect from Ferrari at this point. The only stand-out performance of qualifying from that midfield pack was Sergio Perez, who came very close to beating Alonso for midfield top-dog honours.

5. The order at the top is very difficult to call at this moment. Even McLaren are not in the clear. Although they secured their 2nd 1-2 in a row, their gap to Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus is too close for comfort. The in-season development pace will therefore be crucial in determining the outcome of the championship. Ferrari hope that they can be defensive in the first races and stage a comeback at the 1st European races, but I believe that’s overly optimistic. It’s a race between McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull, with a big question mark hanging over Mercedes’ race pace. Allegedly they have been focusing on race setup this weekend, so the race is going to provide us with a lot of answers, should it remain dry.

6. I have rarely seen anything as scary as Force India’s suspension wobble as Di Resta went over the kerbs of Turn 7. I hope someone with more technical expertise can explain why the front left suspension started wobbling so much. I wonder if it’s a case of a badly tuned interlinked suspension. The only sure thing is that Force India have taken a huge step backwards this season, and their goal to reach P5 in the constructors championship looks silly. They will have to overtake Sauber, Williams and either Ferrari or Lotus to achieve that. Given Vijay Mallya’s much publicized financial troubles, it doesn’t seem likely.

So, what to expect from tomorrow’s race? There are 3 key factors that will determine the outcome:

(a) Weather: If it rains, the race will become unpredictable and chaotic, because when it rains in Malaysia it really pours.

(b) Start: If Mercedes (Schumacher in particular) get one of their customary good starts, then it may create some opportunities for other teams to challenge the McLarens. I am not convinced that Mercedes have the race pace to be at the front and stay there, but I will be more than happy to be proven wrong. Vettel is a real dark horse starting from 5th, on the harder rubber.

(c) Tyre degradation: If the race is dry, I expect several teams to find themselves having to pit in earlier than ideally. I expect all front-runners to go for 3 pit stops, including Perez who was brave enough to go for a Q3 lap time on the medium tyres.

After such a thrilling qualifying session, with a different winner in each segment (Q1, Q2 and Q3) I am really looking forward to the race tomorrow. If it’s dry, we will be able to almost finalize our pecking order for the start of the season. If it’s wet, however, at least we will get some exciting racing… 🙂

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There is a big question for each team to be answered in this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, and provided that conditions remain dry (highly unlikely), we are seeking the answers to the following:

– McLaren: Will they be able to cement their superiority in a more “normal” race track?

– Red Bull: Is, ironically, qualifying their Achilles heel?

– Ferrari: Was 5th place in Australia a result that masked the car’s problems and how much will the new chassis help Massa?

– Mercedes: Will they be able to make the tyres work inside the optimum window and will this hurt their qualifying pace?

– Renault: Was Romain’s pace in Australia a fluke and can such pace be maintained in the race?

– Force India: Are they indeed at the bottom of the midfield?

– Williams: Will they continue to impress and is Senna really doing enough to justify his seat?

– Sauber: Can they repeat their Australian performance in much hotter temperatures?

– Toro Rosso: Will either driver start to gain the upper hand in a consistent basis?

– Caterham: Will they be able to finish the race in conditions much more difficult than Australia?

– Marussia: Can they come any closer to Caterham, seeing as the Hingham-based team hasn’t made the expected leap to the midfield?

– HRT: Yeah. Can they qualify?

Naturally, it’s unreasonable to assume that we can get any answers on Friday. However, we will be monitoring the teams’ performances over the weekend, and hopefully at the end of it we will be able to get at least some of the answers to the above questions. In the meantime, here’s a closer look at today’s running:

The 2011 Australia pole lap was 01:23.529 (by Sebastian Vettel). In 2012, Hamilton’s pole was 01:24.922, i.e. 1.4 seconds slower. That’s significant. In terms of raw pace, therefore, based solely on the Australian qualifying results, it seems that the F1 cars are about 1.68% slower than last year. Now, the pole lap in Malaysia 2011 was 01:34.870 (again by Vettel). If we apply this correction factor, we should expect pole for the 2012 Malaysian GP to be around 01:36.460 (provided, of course, it’s dry). The fastest laptime that we’ve seen in today’s Free Practice sessions was 01:38.021, recorder by Lewis Hamilton in the 1st Practice Session of the day. That’s about 1.6 seconds slower than the expected pole time.

Now, let’s go back to last weekend’s race. As we saw, pole was in the high 24’s, whereas the first laptimes at the beginning of the race were in the high 1:33s (to low 1:34s), which means a difference of (approximately) 9 seconds. Over 58 laps, this gives a fuel effect of, about, 0.150 seconds for every extra lap of fuel that a car has to carry. By accepting the same time penalty in Malaysia (which is not entirely accurate, but will do for the time being), we see that Lewis in his 01:38.021 lap must have been carrying fuel worth about 10 – 11 laps. At a consumption of about 2.6 kg / lap, that means about 26 – 29 kgs of fuel onboard.

It’s important to stress at this point the question of tyres, because although Lewis did his lap on the medium (softer) compound, Pirelli have changed compounds for 2012 and the Australian calculations and gaps are based on the soft (yellow marked) tyre. Biiiiiiiig disclaimer there… 😉

Red Bull’s long runs were very, very consistent. Webber’s 2 main stints in the 2nd session were:

01:45.312
01:45.248
01:44.893
01:44.310
01:44.444
01:44.568
01:44.407
01:44.369
01:44.505
01:44.681

And:

01:44.422
01:44.235
01:44.146
01:44.594
01:44.265
01:44.712

Vettel was also able to post similarly consistent laptimes. Button’s only long stint (below), on the other hand, was not that impressive, with the lap times experiencing a drop off towards the end of the stint, which seems to justify Vettel’s claim that, in terms of race pace, they are at the same level. I presume, however, that these 1:46 laps at the end have more to do with Button easing off than the tyres going off. From the (very) early look of things however, it seems as if Red Bull can post a challenge, provided they sort out their qualifying pace.

01:44.803
01:44.984
01:44.659
01:44.823
01:44.904
01:44.935
01:45.142
01:46.739
01:46.422

What about Mercedes? Well, their longer stints indicated that the problem of degradation is not entirely eliminated yet. Let’s look at the data carefully. I have eliminated the 1:46 laps from Button’s stint, for the reason I explained above. In the following table I am presenting to you the tyre degradation figures, i.e. the pure degradation effect (I have removed the fuel burn-off effect of 0.150 seconds per lap):

Degradation figures - Friday free practice

So, it’s way too early to make any predictions at the moment, but it looks as if Red Bull are nicely positioned for the race and need to sort out their qualifying pace, whereas I believe the exact opposite applies to Mercedes. Ferrari is difficult to judge because of the chaotic difference in performance between the two drivers… McLaren seem to be in the same good position that they were in Australia. I assume they are secretly hoping for Mercedes to do well in qualifying and create a buffer zone between themselves and Red Bull in the race.

In the meantime, I would like to share with you this amazing article. It’s the full verdict in the case of Force India Vs Team Lotus, on the issue of copyright infringement. I suggest you devote at least 3 hours, get a cup of coffee (or five), and read it through… the ENTIRE thing. It’s a mesmerizing, fascinating inside look into the process of designing a car, subcontracting companies, looking for performance, business relationships in F1, etc. It gives insight on several key people within F1, the way they work and the way they think. It’s completely myth-shattering at times, and it will help you understand a lot of the things that take place in the background of our sport. You will be amazed, trust me on this.

Take care dudes.