Sunday’s race ended with Vettel taking the pole and the top spot on the podium. Hamilton brought up second spot, at times more than 16 seconds behind Vettel, and Vitaly Petrov came in third. Webber was dumbfounded at coming in fifth place while his teammate dominated the race and held a huge lead. Jenson Buitton was totally frustrated in his efforts to pass Massa.
While every season brings changes in the form of race car reengineering, the FIA also injected several rules that compounded the amount of change that the drivers, teams, and designers had to contend with.
First and foremost in terms of change was the replacement of Bridgestone as the sole supplier of racing tires with Pirelli tires. Certainly all the teams have had an opportunity to test with the new tires but even as the season has started Pirelli has continued to work on the design and compounding. At the moment the teams have six tires to choose from. There is a rain tire, and an intermediate rain tire, along with four levels of hardness for their tread-less dry tires. This contrasts with last years rain, intermediate, soft, and standard tires. To help viewers to understand which tires are being used and when – the lettering is color coded.
Rain = orange, Intermediate = blue, Very soft = red, Soft = yellow, Medium = white, Hard = silver.
It was clear that the Pirelli tires are substantially different from the Bridgestone tires of last year. The sidewalls are much stiffer and as a consequence the cars are much bouncier even on the relatively smooth surface of the race tracks. That means that the suspensions are being asked to do a lot more than they used to. The compounds are acting quite different from last year’s tires as well. It takes three or four laps for them to achieve their maximum grip and then they are good for eight, ten, or who knows, when they fall off and get greasy. Rubens Barrichello was struggling with trying to predict the grip characteristics. Often he would understeer and end up in the gravel. He was experiencing grip inequities when he collided with Nico Rosberg while trying to brake.
Further, cars must start the race on the same set of tires that they qualified fastest on. If a car only makes it through the first qualifying session (Q1), then their tires could be in a lot better shape than the cars that take that same set all the way through Q3. Also the cars in Q1 must qualify with times no greater than 107% of the time of the fastest time set in that first qualifying session or they will not compete in the race. As with any rule there are exceptions, but the HR team was eliminated from competing in this race for just that reason.
As with last year, there are no fuel stops allowed. There are tire changes allowed and expected since whatever tire a car starts with they must switch out for a second type of tire or face a thirty second penalty.
As a consequence of having new tires this year the FIA has mandated a static weight bias of 54% in the rear of the car (technically the rule is that front weight distribution is between 45.5% and 46.5%). Minimum weight is now 640 kilos (1411 pounds) up from 620 kilos (1367 pounds) to accommodate KERS. (kinetic energy recovery system). KERS was used in 2009 but the teams agreed not to use it last season, even though it was initially allowed. The Red Bull team chose not to use it at all and the newer teams have also not seen fit to use KERS.
KERS can produce an extra 80 hp for a little over six seconds a lap. It was expected to make for defining moments when passes were attempted and at the starting grid, but it is unclear from the Australian race that it really made any difference at all.
Only eight engines are to be used for the season and transmissions cannot be changed until it has been used in five races. There will be no penalty for the first change, unless it happens in the last race of the season. Go figure.
Last year F-ducts and double diffusers were the aerodynamic aids that appeared to make cars contenders or also rans. This year both are verboten as are adjustable front wing flaps. So instead all cars can use a dynamically adjustable rear wing – also known as DRS (drag reduction system). The top wing is in two sections and the back section can pivot flat to reduce drag and allow for an advantage when passing. In practice and qualifying it can be used any time a driver feels the need, but on race day things change. A car must complete two laps before it can be activated and then only if it is within a second of the car it is trying to overtake. Oh yeah, and it can only be used on selected straights and must reset as soon as brakes are applied. If rain tires are mounted it cannot be used at all.
A second safety tether has been added to each “wheel” (actually to each wheel hub) to try and keep wheels from flying free after a collision.
So how did all these changes work? KERS may be a good idea that just isn’t worth the effort. These cars are not a Toyota Prius after all and KERS at best might account for a time advantage of about .3 of a second a lap. Why bother? Red Bull won without it.
The new tires are far from being a predictable element at least at this point in the season. Pirelli has a lot to learn and if they continue to make changes it will cause many a design engineer to rip their hair out. Pirelli did approach Bridgestone for some insight into their design, but understandably received little useful information. I suspect that Rubens is having a difficult time getting a feel for the grip characteristics and as a result is having a devil of a time setting brake bias and helping the engineers sort out the right chassis setups.
The advent of both KERS and DRS have added more buttons to the all ready complex steering wheels as well as implementation rules that get in the way of just racing. Perhaps the FIA should either remove all restrictions on use or do away with them.