Is this still F1 in 2012?

We’ve just reached half-time in the 2012 F1 season and Melbourne seems like it happened two season ago. There have been many talking points this season ranging from Red Bull design controversies to Pirelli’s infamous tyres which have caused plenty of head-scratching already. But there’s no doubt that Ferrari’s achievements so far have been the highlight.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ferrari were nearly 1.5 seconds off pole position in Melbourne. When you consider that teams are lucky to gain a tenth through development per race, Ferrari have exceeded expectations in the development race. This success in development means that Ferrari had a car which was potentially fast but lacked stability and pliability. And the sign of a fast, stable car is one that is competitive in all conditions which they have proved by securing pole at Silverstone and Hockenheim which were both held in wet conditions. In contrast, McLaren appear to struggle in the rain which is highlighted by their relatively poor performance in wet qualifying sessions. Ferrari are then able to remain competitive in race trim but it is a general consensus that Ferrari are not quite the quickest car in dry conditions, but only marginally.

So despite starting off very poorly and still not having the fastest car, albeit a rather competitive one; Fernando Alonso finds himself topping the driver’s championship by a significant thirty-four points. And this leads us to Ferrari’s next great saviour of their season because although the design and engineering team have done a fantastic job with development, Ferrari would not be in the position they are now without Alonso’s race craft.

Until Barcelona, Ferrari relied on Alonso to try and score consistently because they didn’t want to fall too far behind the leaders whilst the team were working on making the car faster. In the first four races, before Barcelona, Alonso scored forty-three points out of a possible hundred and his rivals were barely above him with Webber on forty-eight, Hamilton on forty-nine and Vettel on fifty-five. Alonso is often labelled the most complete driver on the grid and few would dispute that. His ability to drive an unstable car fairly competitively in the first four races highlights his well-rounded skill set and he has stood on the podium more than anyone else this season.

But now that we are in the deep-end of the season, development becomes even more crucial. There’s no doubt that Ferrari were helped by the nature of the Pirelli tyres in the early stages of the season as all the teams found it difficult to not only find the sweet spot of the tyre but also to stay within it. This meant that performance was fluctuating massively and race results were considered a lottery. But this has happened before in F1 where teams have been getting to grips with new rule changes or new technology. It’s only a matter of time before teams begin to understand what they have to work with.

The difference now is that without dedicated testing periods, teams have less time to gather and understand data but within the last three races, teams have begun to understand how the tyres work or liked to be worked. This makes development more crucial because before, any new upgrades brought to a race may have been offset by set-up and tyre problems. But now that teams are finding more consistent performance with the tyres, upgrades will show more significant performance boosts. Furthermore, the teams are working overtime to recover the lost rear downforce caused by the banning of the exhaust-blown diffuser. Not only will improvements in this area increase rear-end stability and traction, it should also help teams manage the tyres better.

While Ferrari have been on an upwards curve, Red Bull have been steady and consistent. McLaren, in contrast, were the fastest car on the track at Melbourne but since then they failed to keep up in the development war and therefore, momentarily fell behind Lotus as the fourth fastest car. They brought new upgrades to Hockenheim though which shows some fairly significant changes and in the race, Jenson Button was closing in on Alonso in the final stint of the race. But they appear to be struggling with tyres more than Ferrari and Red Bull. Although Button was pushing hard for a race win and therefore would have been using his tyres quite aggressively, he still shouldn’t have lost rear tyre performance so easily despite his final stint being twenty-seven laps long. This is something that will improve with time though because the upgrades are new and therefore, they probably haven’t quite found the perfect set-up yet.

All-in-all, I think it’s been a dramatic season so far with plenty of twists and turns to come. It’s a nice change from the dominant flurry of Vettel victories of 2011. While many people complained that the tyres gave F1 too much of an unpredictability factor, we will see a stronger pattern of performances now. However, the excitement is still there because the teams are still closely bunched in terms of performance. Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari are the leading teams with Lotus very close behind them. Also, how much of Ferarri’s success in understanding the tyres been down to hiring former Bridgestone Development Chief Hirohide Hamashima? Ready for the second half?

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