Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Formula 1 : Slater: Vettel win more than skin-deep

Sebastian Vettel's victory in the Australian Grand Prix last weekend was a continuation of the winning form which saw him dominate last year's Korean and Abu Dhabi races and take the title. However there were a number of intriguing stories behind the headline.

The pace of the Red Bull cars came as a result of both their aerodynamic efficiency and clever matching of gear ratios, rather than the much vaunted new technologies of KERS energy recovery and the DRS, drag reduction system rear wing.

Adrian Newey surprised the entire Formula One field by secretly removing the KERS system from the Red Bull RB07 cars ahead of the race. The Red Bull team apparently optimised the gearing of their cars with slightly lower ratios, which meant they achieved the 18,000 rpm rev limit in top gear on every straight while many of their opposition used higher gearing to leave extra revs for when the gismos kicked in.

The Red Bull gamble worked, at least for Sebastian Vettel, who surprised even his own team with the sheer pace of his qualifying performance, then cruised to an uncontested victory. Mark Webber though struggled with his car throughout the weekend, failing to find an elusive chassis problem which meant his car lacked consistent handling and ate through its rear tyres faster than his team-mate.

McLaren meanwhile showed a technical turn-around but a lack of tactical thinking in the race. After lacklustre pre-season testing, the team completely redesigned the underside of their car, abandoning a complex exhaust system which had failed to enhance downforce as expected.

Such was the last-minute nature of the modifications that the baggage carousels at Melbourne International Airport were littered with odd-shaped parcels that McLaren engineers had brought in with their luggage in their haste to update the car. Gratifyingly the updates worked.

McLaren proved the best of the rest at Albert Park, with Hamilton chasing Vettel to the flag. However 2010 Australian GP winner Jenson Button was tactically trumped by Ferrari.

Button had slipped down to 6th behind Felipe Massa's Ferrari at the start and his desperation to overtake saw the McLaren take a short-cut across the inside of Turn 11. Ferrari immediately began to play their tactical game by allowing Alonso to pass team mate Massa.

Had Button relinquished the place to Massa at that point, he would have lost two places and as the McLaren pitwall debated with the stewards, Ferrari pulled another masterstroke by bringing both their drivers into the pits to change tyres. That left the race stewards with no choice but to call Button into the pitlane for a drive-through penalty, which ruined any chance of a podium finish.

It is notable that the man in the Ferrari pit probably making those calls was Pat Fry, who until the end of the last season was the master tactician at McLaren. Clearly Woking's loss is Maranello's gain.

Tactics alone however couldn't hide the fact that the Ferrari car was not on the pace of the front-runners. As Alonso battled his way home in 4th place, as in Abu Dhabi last year he again found himself looking at the gearbox of the Russian driver Vitaly Petrov, whose Lotus Renault GP car was heading for 3rd place.

Petrov has seemingly grown in stature to meet a new role in his team after Robert Kubica was sidelined by his pre-season rallying accident. His confidence will be boosted further by his first podium finish and if Petrov's form can be maintained, he could even be a surprise championship challenger.

Another drive which should be complemented, even if it turns out to be ultimately pointless, is that of Sergio Perez who crossed the finish line 7th. Subsequently his Sauber was excluded for a technical infringement, but it should not detract from the Mexican rookie's ability to stretch the life of his tyres three times further than some of his rivals. A man to watch? Absolutely
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