From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.13 :: Mar. 31, 2011
The last couple of months, it was business as usual for the Formula One teams, logging long hours in pre-season testing at circuits in Jerez, Valencia and Barcelona (Spain) and analysing reams of baffling data extracted from their mean machines. The pre-eminent teams — Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes Grand Prix — have largely been successful with the preparation of their cars for the 2011 season, though McLaren isn't exactly in seventh heaven, unnerved as it is by the lack of pace and reliability of its cars.
After the final round of testing in Barcelona, Lewis Hamilton said he was disappointed with the MP4-26. “Do I believe I have a car to win the World Championship at the moment? I don't. No,” the 2008 world champion told reporters after being muted by exhaust and hydraulic failures at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Hamilton's team-mate Jenson Button too was quite acrid in his assessment of the MP4-26. “I am not going to lie. It's not the best way to go into the season,” said the 2009 champion after finishing at the bottom of the time-sheet in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso, world champion in 2005 and 2006, had a straightforward and uncomplicated run in his new Ferrari 150º Italia during testing. But he warned the Scuderia of a possible McLaren sandbagging.
“They're better than they look,” he is reported to have told the Spanish daily El Pais. “Winter testing doesn't explain anything. They say they are expecting a little more so perhaps they will be at a similar level to the best in Australia and then go on ahead. “When we get to Australia, we'll see. McLaren are not going to be fighting for tenth place but rather for the podium.”
World champion Sebastian Vettel and his associate Mark Webber of Red Bull have been the envy of the other teams not just for the speed that they flogged out of their RB7s but the staggering consistency with which the cars passed reliability tests.
The winter testing, however, is only one part of the big story, for the experts believe there are other crucial issues the teams would have to grapple with during the season. Tyre management, for instance. This, they say, could make a huge difference between victory and defeat.
From the time the FIA World Motor Sport Council decided to roll out the red carpet for Pirelli — which is back in the sport following Bridgestone's decision to not renew its contract with Formula One — the 12 teams have been working closely with the Italian tyre manufacturer to preclude the kind of situation where one team acquires an unfair advantage over the rest.
The teams, though, aren't too happy with Pirelli tyres. Alonso was pretty vocal in his criticism of the tyres. “With Pirelli, we can't brake hard enough ... And the traction has deteriorated,” he remarked.
“Previously when I reached the end of the straight I braked as hard as I could. If I do that now, they (the tyres) block, especially the back ones,” he added.
Vettel too sounded anti-Pirelli when he told a television channel recently that the tyres degrade too quickly. “They are only good for 16 or 17 laps, then they start to break up and are ruined, then the driver doesn't have a chance. The feeling when driving is different and that is a pity for us,” said the German.
So the greatest challenge for the teams would be deciding the kind of tyres — prime (hard or medium) or option (super soft or soft) — to run on at different stages of the race. This would also call for better handling of pit stops as teams are expected to make no fewer than three halts for tyre changes.
The introduction of DRS (Drag Reduction System) and the return of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) are expected to promote racing to a higher plane. DRS, essentially an adjustable rear wing system, would boost a car's surge at the time of overtaking in the straight by nearly 15 kmph. The system, though, can only be switched on when the car is within a second of passing the one in front and that too on a particular section of the track that would be marked out by the race director.
Stepping up the level of competition has always been the primary objective of the men who run the sport. In this context, the 107 per cent rule in qualifying should rank amongst the most brilliant schemes served up by the FIA in recent times to make Formula One far more appealing. While the rule — under which a driver who fails to clock within 107 per cent of the fastest Qualifier 1 time will not be able to participate in the race — could banish uncompetitive cars and drivers from the starting grid, it should prod the smaller teams into performing a lot better than what they did last season.
Narain Karthikeyan, who is returning to Formula One after five years, isn't worried about the 107 per cent rule. He is quite optimistic about Hispania Racing getting to the starting grid. “Based on the 107 per cent rule, we have to be within 5.8 seconds of the pole time in Melbourne, which I think we are pretty capable of doing,” autosport.com quoted the Indian as saying.
Narain Karthikeyan's aim, though, would be to score Hispania Racing's first points in Formula One.
The sport has absorbed the shock of postponement of the Bahrain Grand Prix due to political unrest quite gallantly. Doubts linger over Bahrain's return to the circuit, but with the first-ever Indian Grand Prix to be run on October 30, the year 2011 would still measure up to last season as the longest ever with 19 races. But will it be as exciting as 2010?
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