Saturday, April 13, 2013

Not tired of tires - yet

Some race fans, not to mention drivers, race team management, and other race personnel, bemoan the impact of tire strategy and its importance over the course of the race weekend. Instead of managing a sometimes wildly speculative variable, they prefer to run flat out, non-stop. We hear you, Michael Schumacher. However, as fans, we’ve seen that before, and the result is a team-by-team, single file procession around the race track, an affair that quickly becomes mind-numbingly boring.

I, and I doubt I am alone, am looking forward to this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, round three of the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship. After three rounds of practice and three rounds of qualifying, one thing is abundantly clear:  this race will be entirely about tire management.

Pirelli has brought the medium and soft compounds to Shanghai this week, and as usual there is a performance gap between the two compounds of a little over a second per lap – the softs offer more grip and are therefore quicker. However, that pace comes with a price, as thermal degradation of the soft tires see them fall off quickly, with lap times soaring upwards as quickly as the tires wear out. Teams are seeing performance tail off abruptly after only a few laps.

Formula 1 sporting regulations require competitors to start the race on the tires they qualified with on their fastest lap. Q3 on Saturday saw the Red Bull of defending three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and the McLaren of former world champion Jenson Button take a gamble and elect not go gunning for pole on the softs, the strategy taken by the rest of their competitors. Rather, they went out on the much more durable tires. The result is Button will start 8th and Vettel 9th, but they will both be on medium tires. Pole sitter Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and the rest of the top seven qualifiers will start on the soft tires, requiring pits stops as early as lap 5 or 6. This brings the race right into the hands of Button, Vettel, and to a lesser extent, Sauber’s Nico H├╝lkenberg, starting 10th, also on medium tires.

Rest assured, computers up and down the pit lane are buzzing and working overtime running scenario simulations, with teams working feverishly to devise a strategy that gets them to the end of the 56 lap race distance in the shortest cumulative time possible. Will starting on medium tires bring the race to Button and Vettel? At first, yes. If they get past the first few corners – always a threat for the mid-pack on the first lap – they will lead the first half of the race. The bad news, of course, is this tire strategy gamble developed for a reason – both the McLaren and the Red Bull are not quite at the pace around Shanghai as the Mercedes, Ferraris and Lotuses.

How will the race pan out? I don’t know. But, I can tell you, I can hardly wait to find out.

Catch a flying lap on Twitter @RayHartjen

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