Equality compromises Kimi's victory bid
Mark Hughes on Lotus' rise to the front in Bahrain and how the complications of a policy of equality compromised Kimi Raikkonen's bid for victory...
By Mark Hughes
Last Updated: 04/05/12 10:16am
Bahrain was the race in which the promise of the Lotus E20 finally came good. It has shown throughout testing and at different stages of the previous three races that it's a potential front-running car. Bahrain was where it all came together, and where the aero update tried but discarded in China remained on. With hindsight, it should have stayed on in China but an anomalous picture there was given by the different track conditions of the two Friday practice sessions.
In Bahrain the team's drivers filled out the two lower podium places - and in Kimi Raikkonen's performance there was the tantalising prospect that actually this was a winnable race. A measure of conservatism definitely came into play tactically and furthermore the team's insistence on driver equality may have further compromised the final result.
The moment of truth came on the 36th lap - during the third of four stints - as Kimi got close enough to put a move onto Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull for the lead. Vettel managed to block the move and Raikkonen knew in that moment he'd probably lost his chance of the win. "It had taken too long to get up with him," he rued, "and after that my tyres dropped off a bit." The main limitation with this year's tyres is heat degradation, particularly acute around the Sakhir circuit, with its many low gear acceleration zones that heat up the rear tyres. It isn't that the tyres wear out; they simply become saturated by the energy constantly being fed through them until they run out of heat dissipation capacity. The overheating tyre then rapidly runs out of grip - to the point that it will actually be quicker to spend an extra 20s on a pit stop for fresh rubber.
Kimi's tyres were just on the beginning of that downwards slide as he arrived on Vettel's tail, having begun the stint almost nine seconds behind the Red Bull. Making up those nine seconds in eleven laps had accelerated the heat degradation of Kimi's tyres - and once that challenge into turn one had failed, Seb, who had been able to drive a much more measured race from pole, taking less from the tyres, had him under control.
It's a situation that underlines the point Michael Schumacher made after the race - that you cannot drive these tyres flat-out, that the game has changed and now it's about finding the most efficient trade-off between pace and tyre degradation and sticking to that programme. The less passing or defending you have to do - the less racing, in other words - the more efficient that trade-off can be. This isn't a new phenomenon; it's been the case ever since the start of last year and has been reported on. It's simply that more people are now beginning to notice.
But the salient part of that equation for Raikkonen's weekend was that his lowly grid position of 11th had given the tyres too much to do in the race. On the other hand, one of the reasons he was able to catch Vettel despite having been as far as eleven seconds behind in the early laps, was that by not qualifying for Q3 he was able to start each stint with brand new tyres, whereas Vettel's first three stints were on used tyres. If your car is competitive, and the track allows overtaking, then there is clearly another finely-balanced trade-off between staying out of Q3 and getting the tyre benefit or getting into it and surrendering new rubber for track position.
It was this conundrum that was playing upon Lotus' track operation chief Alain Permane's mind during qualifying. "Kimi had done his first Q2 run and our software was predicting that it wasn't going to be enough to get through," he explained, "and so it was going to mean blowing another set of softs just to get in, leaving us with just one set for Q3. And I began to think about the benefits of not trying to do that. What decided it for me was that we were not as competitive relative to the others over one lap on the soft tyres as we were on the mediums. So we probably weren't going to get pole. But we knew from Friday that we were mega-fast over a stint. So I decided to not send him out for a second Q2 run. I think for that situation, it was the correct choice."
It all depended upon catching and passing Vettel before the tyres had begun the rapid downwards fall as they get past the point of no return on heat degradation. Had he got the opportunity a few laps earlier, giving him several attempts at passing rather than one, it's likely Kimi would have given the team its first victory since 2008 (when it ran as Renault).
Which is why it was particularly awkward that he should encounter his own team-mate Romain Grosjean as he sought to reduce that early deficit to Vettel. From the beginning of the second stint, with Grosjean running second and Raikkonen a distant third, Kimi on his new soft tyres was lapping around 0.55s quicker than Romain on his used mediums. Raikkonen began to be slowed by Grosjean from around lap 19 and he spent the next five laps limited to his pace. Had Grosjean been instructed to allow Raikkonen past as soon as he was within range, Kimi would have been already very close to Vettel as they made their second stops, rather than almost 7s behind. Kimi would then have had all of the third stint to try and overtake the Red Bull.
Asking a team-mate to move aside is still a controversial call, even though it is now within the regulations and Lotus is not alone in wrestling with the problem this year. It has already compromised McLaren once, perhaps even twice. They have a policy of the driver which is ahead having first call on pit stops. In Australia with Jenson Button leading and Lewis Hamilton second, but with Hamilton running out of tyres, Hamilton had to wait until Button - whose tyres were ok - had pitted before he could, leaving him out on tyres that had seriously degraded, losing him over 2s on his in-lap alone. Had the team allowed Hamilton in first it would not have affected Button's position, but would ultimately have prevented Hamilton being beaten by Vettel. But driver equality internal protocol prevented that.
In China it was less clear-cut but Button could probably have won had he been switched to a two-stop strategy at the first stops. But because Hamilton had already pitted and had his used softs put on, locking him into a three-stop, Button was probably effectively locked into the same strategy. Had Button been changed to a two-stop and won and the strategy imposed on Hamilton remained a three-stop and he hadn't, things would have got difficult inside the McLaren garage.
The good news for Lotus is that such issues are now deciding whether or not they win races. The team heads into Barcelona, a track with plenty of the fast corners at which the car truly excels, in a highly confident frame of mind. The solid 2-3 Bahrain result, whilst less than was probably possible, at least gives the team a great foundation.