Confusion reigns in Spain
Sky Sports F1's Commentary Expert Mark Hughes explains why everyone in the paddock is struggling to explain the fluctuations in form this season...
By Mark Hughes
Last Updated: 16/05/12 10:50am
The best minds in F1 are struggling to make sense of the category's currently huge competitive variability after Williams' Pastor Maldonado became the fifth winner in five races with a convincing victory at Barcelona.
This is about much more than small variations in a very closely competitive field giving disproportionate changes in the order. It's about spectacular swings in relative performance from team to team, apparently only slightly related to car development - if at all.
"Success in F1 has always been about aerodynamics," said Red Bull's Christian Horner. "But this year that seems to be far less a factor than historically. I'm struggling to explain it and it seems to be all about the black art of managing these tyres. Whoever understands the tyres and broadens the window in which they work will prevail this year. But we are a long way from understanding it at the moment and the only comfort we take is that it would appear everyone else is in the same boat!"
"I don't know," said Fernando Alonso upon being asked if his strong second place indicated that the Ferrari's upgrades have now made it into a competitive car. "In the last race we finished P9, a minute behind the Red Bull. Here we finished one minute ahead of the Red Bull. I don't think our upgrades are worth two minutes over a race! They have worked a little better than expected but even so I don't really know where we are. I think some of the other teams have under-performed, or had problems getting their tyres working because some of the results here feel very strange."
"I felt we'd be good this weekend," said Williams chief of engineering Mark Gillan, "but not this good!" "I'm at a total loss to understand my car this weekend," said McLaren's Jenson Button. "On Friday I started off with massive understeer. We put more front wing on, I still had massive understeer. We changed the pressures very slightly and put even more wing on and suddenly it felt ok. I put the soft tyres on and I had a balance and we were fast." The fastest, in fact. But that was the last time Button figured at all competitively during the weekend. Thereafter he would have rear end instability into the slow corners and a lack of front grip through the fast ones. Improving on one of these imbalances with set up would make the other worse. That was exactly the complaint of the Red Bull drivers for the first three races of this season.
In the sister McLaren Lewis Hamilton had no such issues. Once he'd finessed a balance from his car on Friday, it stayed that way and he was the dominant man of qualifying. Given his terrific fight through the field to eighth from the back of the grid, during which he was able to keep his tyres alive despite a two-stop strategy when everyone else was obliged to do a three, it can probably be assumed he'd have been the likely winner had he not had his qualifying penalty.
The teams' simulation tools are fantastically advanced. The wind tunnel and CFD programmes give them incredibly detailed and accurate information on the aerodynamic performances of their cars and although McLaren, for one, has researched software modelling of tyre performance, it is a science with rather more amorphous rules than aerodynamics. In the past though, the tyres have at least behaved a certain degree of predictability. This year's generation of Pirelli seems to be reacting to variables which have not been fully identified by the teams.
Last year's tyre had a less flat profile that put most of the wear on a relatively narrow part of the tyre's width and this wear usually defined the tyre's durability. This year's tyre has a much flatter profile that spreads the load much more evenly across the full width of the contact patch and the limit is no longer wear, but heat durability. In essence the tyre becomes saturated with the energy being fed through it and overheats into uselessness, the chemical compound of the surface breaking down so that the tyre loses grip at forever lower limits even though there may still be plenty of tread left.
It would appear that this has made the tyre much more sensitive to track temperature and to the balance of the car. If there is the hint of a pattern to the apparently random outcomes this year, it is that when the weather was cooler than expected - ie China and Barcelona - the Ferrari, Williams and Sauber have been competitive (recall Bruno Senna's sparkling race in China). On hot days, the Lotus has tended to look very good. In the 40-degC+ heat of Friday in Barcelona the Lotuses looked by far the fastest cars over a race stint, even though they apparently struggled to get the last couple of tenths of single lap pace. With race day 10-deg C cooler the Lotuses looked merely competitive. Perhaps the crucial clues lie in there somewhere. At least two teams are now looking very carefully at finding set ups that match tyre temperatures on each corner of the car, for with this tyre so sensitive to heat degradation, any imbalance between tyre temperature can soon spool up into a spiral of mediocrity.
Within this ambiguity it becomes more difficult than ever to assess the performances of the drivers. Maldonado drove a perfectly controlled race, delicately balancing the requirements of looking after the Williams' rear tyres while sustaining big pressure from Alonso. It was a thinking drive which combined with his qualifying speed became the winning combination. But, like Nico Rosberg's China win, or Jenson Button's in Australia, it was a drive that was all about measuring out the energy of the tyres in the fastest, most efficient way. The sustained aggression and relentlessness, maintaining flat-out on-the-limit driving for lap after lap, a skill that so few can master, is currently an obsolete requirement.
Measured by the new, Pirelli-dominated, set of requirements Maldonado is a top driver. The worrying thing is that he may be equal first with the 23 others.