FEATURE BY MATT SOMERFIELD
Months of waiting over, the teams completed their pre-season tests in Jerez and Barcelona and made their way to Melbourne. The pecking order seemed blurred as they tried to hide their form from one another heading into the first race; but as we all know, when the flag drops the bullshit stops.
The teams complained throughout pre-season testing that the tyres weren't performing, it wasn't a criticism levelled at Pirelli for the root cause lay in the weather. Poor temperatures in Barcelona made for inaccurate data as the tyres couldn't operate correctly making it as difficult for the teams to understand where they were as it was for the rest of us.
So surely in Melbourne we would see a more realistic formation of the grid? Well, as it transpires we didn't. It makes for better reading of the teams' form going forward but the weather once again put paid to an accurate assessment. Saturday afternoon's qualifying session proved to be a washout with only Q1 taking place and Q2 and 3 postponed leaving us with just as many questions as answers… the Mercedes still looking strong especially in the hands of Nico Rosberg.
Consequently, not for the first time, qualifying had to be completed on a Sunday morning in order to form the grid for the race later in the day. Whilst the rain had abated the track was still damp for the first part of Q2 and so it seemed it was a case of who would make the first move onto slicks. McLaren made the move first but will now rue the decision (easy in hindsight) as both drivers lost time trying to make the slicks work on a track that simply wasn't ready for them. The trouble with using slick tyres on a damp track is temperature, if you can't work the tyres enough the temperatures and pressures drop giving both a mechanical and aerodynamic disadvantage. The latter being that the lack of pressure will result in a lower than desirable ride height which plays havoc with the aero setup of the car.
With an ever evolving track the drivers crossing the line at the end of the session stood the best chance of squeezing through to Q3 with Felipe and Jenson on the winning side of that particular battle.
For Q3 we saw some of the teams post exploratory / banker laps early in the session once again on the Intermediates but this lead to a quick change for all the teams onto the Super Softs as the Top 10 battled for position.
Albert Park, as we know, is a street circuit and so by nature the track surface isn't as abrasive as we find at the permanent circuits on the calendar, therefore I believe it was a good call by Pirelli to take the Super Soft and Medium compounds to Australia with a view to increasing the strategic element.
Overtaking was up on 2012 with 59 passes completed compared with 41 last year, making for some even more interesting racing than we have seen in the past as it is a track that has historically yielded low overtaking numbers.
Once again I find myself looking at the qualifying format, as I did last year, and finding potential for a reverse grid / cross over situation whereby the teams on the cusp enjoy the freedom to choose the tyre with better longevity. Adrian Sutil is the perfect candidate, having made up several places from the start it allowed him to run in tune with the lead drivers but go longer into the race really only scuppered by the relatively long runs on the Super Softs of the Mercedes drivers. On the other hand Adrian was also a lynchpin in Kimi's victory as the Finn dispatched the Force India driver on the exit of turn 13 during lap 43. However, the chasing Alonso struggled for a few laps following in the turbulent air of the VJM06 even though he was shod with much fresher Medium compound tyres at this stage. With Sutil having made such an impact on the race it leaves me pondering two scenarios:
What effect would Nico Hulkenberg have had on the race? We're still left with many unanswered questions regarding the C32 with Gutierrez starting his first GP unable to give us a good barometer. Nico Hulkenberg on Medium compound tyres placed in front of Sutil on the grid could have lead to an even greater challenge for the men ahead.
I'm often left wondering why teams don't make a strategic call in Q3 especially in the case of McLaren / Jenson Button for Melbourne. The team knew it was struggling for pace and had little hope of qualifying well against the other teams, so for me I cannot understand the reason for it to qualify on the Super Softs. Had Jenson run a one-timed lap scenario on the Medium compound and started the race with a nicely scrubbed set of tyres perhaps the team could have stood a chance of creating a more flexible strategy. Instead it was left red faced behind the two Force India's, through strategy it could have manufactured a better result.
In terms of car developments with pre-season testing only just behind them the teams opted to run fairly similar aero configurations to those we had already seen. However there were a few things I'd like to bring to your attention:
Note: All pictures can be found in higher resolution here.
Lotus spent 2012 as arguably the team that mastered the Pirelli tyres best, able to extract performance whilst maintaining low degradation was a key feature of the E20. It was clear during testing that the E21's evolutionary design had locked in this ability standing the team in good stead for 2013. The key to Kimi's victory in Melbourne was his ability to make his tyres last long enough for a two-stop race whilst those around him completed three.
Lotus was prolific in its application of Front Wings throughout 2012 and it would appear this year will be no different. They are always only minor detail changes, but suffice to say that this can be enough to make a difference.
Above: The difference between the two Front Wings, as always minor but for Melbourne (Top) the Cascade has been re-profiled allowing more air to be caught and used by it. We can see that in the pre-Melbourne spec the Cascade follows the lines of the Mainplane below it allowing more air to pass underneath the Cascade.
Another item that made a brief appearance on the E21 toward the end of the Barcelona test was a slotted Bargeboard. It's an area that the teams tend to modify race by race but is often overlooked as the changes are relatively minor. However, in the case of Lotus its new version is slotted which will help promote a swifter airflow around the undercut of the Sidepod.
Above: It's an area that is sometimes difficult to get a good shot of, however in this picture we can see the tail end of the Bargeboard in the distance between the Front Wing pylons
Above: In this image above from testing we can see the Bargeboard before the team added the enhancement slots.
Above: Another carry over from testing that the team didn't run throughout 2012 whilst the rest of the grid seemed to are the Endplate Strakes (Red) which will alter the direction that the exhaust plume takes as it heads to the rear of the car. Also note the Slotted Bargeboard can also be seen in this image (Green Arrow)
Above: The team was the first to introduce a 7 Tier Front Wing and continued to use it in Melbourne
Above: Having had success with a new iteration of its Semi Coanda exhaust the team retained it's services for Melbourne. (The new version of Ferrari's exhaust lowers the exhaust channel closer to the floor of the car).
Above (Image brightened): Massa was critical of the car's cooling in Jerez so for the last day of testing there, and throughout the Barcelona tests, the team ran a large cooling duct under the F138's nose. This duct didn't make an appearance in Melbourne.
Heading to Melbourne and in the practice/qualifying sessions the signs all pointed to a Red Bull victory but it wasn't to be.
Mark's home GP didn't get off to the best of starts with a bad get away from his grid slot demoting him down the order. The team was critical of the new SECU that McLaren Electronic Systems (MES) have introduced this season ahead of its need for 2014. (More sensors required next season) with an investigation by MES after the race concluding that the team was forced to restart the data system in the garage. Mark's car/garage suffered with a loss of telemetry on his installation lap meaning his clutch wasn't subjected to an optimum setting whilst KERS was also offline, he still fought back to a solid sixth place finish.
Sebastian Vettel had a good start but fell back as the race progressed seemingly unable to produce the same sort of pace as the others when on the Medium compound tyres. Matters were made worse when Seb's second stop coincided with Adrian Sutil's first and as Alonso had made the first move by pitting a lap earlier the Spaniard jumped them both during the stop.
Much of Red Bull's loss of performance during the race can be attributed to the cool temperatures seen once again in Melbourne. Like Barcelona, in the cooler temperatures the tyres were not operating to their maximum and instead shredding.
Carrying on the trend from last season in regard to upgrades I saw nothing of note for the Brackley team in Melbourne. We also see now that the stellar jump in performance some sections of the media and fans were pointing at isn't available at the moment. It has made significant improvements but as the W03 was largely under developed last season we are simply seeing the results of a sharp re-development curve. Many have also pointed towards the team's Front/Rear/Side to Side interlinked suspension as its sudden increase in performance, however when all is said and done the team has been persevering with the system for several seasons already. I still don't see Mercedes as title contenders but it's clear to see it has moved in the right direction I just want to see how its performance looks when the tyres are matched to the correct tyre temperatures as this was one of the team's major failings last season.
Solid performances by both Force India drivers both separated by reverse strategies goes to show the depth to the VJM06. I'm still gauging another solid midfield result for the team over the season as its Melbourne result is flattered by the under performing McLarens and the loss of Hulkenberg from the grid.
Well the doom and gloom merchants seem to be piling it on McLaren at the moment with certain pockets of the media taking the opportunity to take a comment made by Martin Whitmarsh totally out of context. McLaren has since categorically denied it will revert to the MP4-27 and instead resolve the issues blighting the MP4-28. Both drivers were critical of the ride (which can be attributed to the bumpy nature of the Melbourne street circuit) whilst both also complained of stability issues. It's very easy to start blaming the decision to switch to Pull Rod Front Suspension and we can obviously attribute some of the team's problems to this. However I find it even more surprising that with a monumental focus shift from its previous car that featured the lower nose the team still has the same Front Wing (albeit with some minor alterations) that featured on the '27' as far back as Austin last year.
When comparing the MP4-28 to other cars on the grid it's clear to see that the McLaren is running far more Rear Wing angle of attack perhaps trying to make up the deficit of the Beam Wing & Diffuser below it. McLaren had far too much front downforce keyed into the MP4-27 when it arrived at Testing last year and consequently had to lose the 'Snowplough' it had run the previous year (Used in place of Turning Vanes). This year it started with some fairly complex triple element Turning Vanes but realised quickly that to enable quicker setup changes it would have to revert to the simple ones used on the '27'. The team, I feel, might not only be struggling with mechanical balance, the problem could also be compounded by poor aero balance. One thing is for certain, the only way is up for McLaren who I think may fare a little better on a proper circuit with better track temperatures.
Disappointment for Sauber which couldn't make the grid with Nico Hulkenberg's car following a fault found in the fuel system when the team went to add the race quantity of fuel to the car. It's a scenario that the team hasn't encountered before and so that particular chassis has been shipped back to Hinwil for investigation and a fresh one sent out to Malaysia for Nico to use this coming weekend.
Williams seemed to have a great deal to offer during the pre-season tests with the team building on the success of last season However, the Grove outfit struggled in Melbourne with Pastor making the very critical comment that 'this car is impossible to drive'. I'm quite sure that the team simply struggled to find the optimum setup for the Albert Park street circuit rather than the FW35 being an intrinsically bad car, with the team flip flopping between its Semi-Coanda and Cross-Under Tunnel exhaust solutions throughout the weekend.
A great result for Lotus which seem to have continued to improve on the E20 from last season with it's inherent ability to look after but extract performance from the tyres. I'm not sure either the Red Bull or Ferrari teams could have done a two-stop strategy like Lotus which bodes well for the latter. Lotus still suffers from performance in qualifying though and so it's always going to provide them with a see-saw whereby they need to make up places through strategy and good overtaking. Looking for that qualification advantage and having been testing their DRD (Drag Reduction Device) for some time now the opportunity to use it is at its peak in Malaysia and China, where the circuit plays to its advantages. It will be interesting to see if Lotus and indeed the other teams that have tested it will use it in Sepang, but with some rain predicted throughout the weekend its implementation could once again be marred by the climate.