With the first four flyaway races done and dusted, the form guide has yet to settle. But there must be some conclusions we can draw before the big update packages make their way to the Mugello test, then Barcelona.
Firstly, whispers from the paddock during pre-season testing that this will be the closest F1 season for years have been confirmed. This is reflected by the fact that we have had four different race winners from four different teams so far. And furthermore, we have had eight different drivers on the podium – more than we had in the whole of 2011.
However, as with any motorsport, tyres have made a significant impact on the racing this year. So significant that it prompted seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher to criticise Pirelli. There are many cynical arguments out there trying to analyse the Schumacher’s words but it certainly implies that he is having a hard time adjusting to his driving style. It must be remembered that Ferrari spent a large amount of money so Bridgestone could develop highly durable tyres which is just one of many factors that led to Schumacher dominating the sport at the time.
Nonetheless, if we ignore the spectacle that Pirelli have contributed to, you can understand his frustrations. Although Mercedes are one of the teams struggling most with tyre management, all the teams are finding the tyres difficult to understand – including smooth, finger-tip drivers such as Jenson Button.
Pirelli said that there weren’t going to much changes in the tyres from last season except that the performance levels between the compounds was going to be closer, and they are. But what they didn’t make explicit was that the sweet-spot of the tyres, the optimal working temperatures are now much smaller. So minute that in China when track temperature dropped by a couple of degrees in dying minutes of Q3, drivers were unable to improve their lap times when track evolution would normally have allowed them to.
This means that not only is it critical to get tyres up to working temperature (as this is always the case) but it is now more difficult to maintain. For example, running wide will not only hinder your lap-time, but it may also ruin tyre performance. Running wide will normally lower tyre temperature and therefore tyre pressure too and a driver could lose several tenths a lap as he tries to get the tyres back up to optimal performance levels.
So what can we expect in the imminent update packages? Most of the big updates will be aero packages with many teams still trying to regain downforce lost from the banning of the exhaust blown diffuser. While Red Bull will be trying to improve tyre performance in cooler conditions, McLaren will want to improve their pace in warmer conditions.
The eyes of the media will of course be set on Ferrari when Barcelona comes around. Big updates are expected from them and it will be interesting to see what Pat Fry has to offer. Perhaps we will see some kind of settled grid order once the European races commences, but for the sake of the fans and F1 in general, let’s hope not.