F1 Chinese GP: Safety (Car) Dance

Safety cars and changing conditions made for an interesting fourth round of the 2010 F1 World Championship. It was a familiar face that took the checkered flag. In a race that was comparable to the Australian GP, it was Jenson Button that took advantage of strategy and luck to pick up his second win of the season. However, this race wasn’t without its share of controversy.

The 2010 Chinese Grand Prix was interesting, to say the least. We had the order scrambled because of who changed from dry to wet to dry and back to wet tires and when they did it. Jenson Button only stopped twice during the race which allowed him to crawl to victory. Button, Rosberg, and the two Renaults skipped the first two rounds of pit stops when rain came down at the start of the race and quickly dried up. Most of the rest of the field made four stops which would have left them out of contention except for a pair of safety car periods.

The first safety car period was when most car switched to inters and left the field scrambled. The whole field made a pair of stops in the intervening green flag run before the second safety car bunched the field up. Without that second safety car, it was likely that Rosberg would have been on the podium and likely with Robert Kubica. Fortunately, battles were stimulated up and down the grid because everyone had been tossed out of order because of the changing weather conditions. Instead, Lewis Hamilton was helped largely by his teammate bunching the grid heading to the restart after the second safety car (more on that in a bit). In fact, likely to have been issued team orders was all that prevented Lewis from picking off his teammate. Fernando Alonso was likely the biggest beneficiary. A drive-through penalty for a jumped start was negated by that second safety car period which caught him back up as he was able to charge up to fourth place before being held off by Rosberg for the final step on the podium.

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It used to be said that the Ferraris were given all the breaks by the FIA. After today’s race, I’m not so sure of that. The McLarens were practically handed the win by the FIA and race stewards. First, the McLaren F-Duct was approved as legal by the FIA despite the fact that it probably should be deemed a moveable aerodynamic device. The F-Duct has given the two silver cars a clear advantage when it comes to overtaking. When it comes to defending overtaking moves, Lewis Hamilton is given scads of leeway. Apparently weaving repeatedly across the front straight in Malaysia is perfectly legal as long as a McLaren is doing it.

This race, the McLarens could have earned a few ticking offs by the stewards. Hamilton went side-by-side with Sebastian Vettel into the pit lane and forced Vettel to back off or crash. When the drivers were released from those pit stops, Hamilton came out alongside Vettel and stayed half in the fast lane and fast in the service area. At any other track, Hamilton would have run over equipment but apparently close doesn’t count for F1 stewards. The second safety car period saw both McLarens get away with questionable tactics. Button slowed to nearly a stop at the hairpin which bunched the field and caused several near collisions. As the field accelerated to the restart, Hamilton was alongside Mark Webber who should have been in front. The two touched and Webber lost several positions as a result. Both men should have been penalized, Button for erratic driving behind the safety car and Hamilton for unsafe driving and passing under the safety car, but they got out of jail for free.

•••

Despite scoring his first championship points today, Renault still isn’t happy with Vitaly Petrov. The highly-touted Russian isn’t drawing internal comparisons to Robert Kubica for his driving skill but his size. Renault engineers believe that Petrov is about 10 kg too heavy when compared to his similarly-sized teammate. Now, when Nigel Mansell drove for McLaren in 1995 and was so fat that they needed to build a special chassis to fit his arse, did engineers tell him off? Well, they probably did but we didn’t read about it on the interweb. It instead ended up as urban legend that we accept as fact.

•••

All signs point to a new tire manufacturer coming into F1 next year. Okay, we all know that Bridgestone was out at the end of this season. I mean that it’ll be a fairly new name that is likely to come into the sport. Cooper Avon has made a late pitch to Bernie Ecclestone to become a (or perhaps the) tire supplier in 2011. Michelin has the favour of the teams but they don’t want to be the sole supplier. Bernie is said to be opposed to another tire war and to Michelin’s proposal of 18-inch tires. Michelin’s proposal might be better for racing because bigger tires should mean more mechanical grip, though it will change the balance and look of the cars yet again.

Personally, I like the idea of another tire war. While there is a risk that one manufacturer could dominate proceedings, it could turn out to be a bit more like 2006 when Michelin and Bridgestone were fairly evenly matched. The big advantage of a tire war is that the manufacturers would be trying to make grippier, and therefore softer, tire than the other. That would help put a stop to the practice of one stop races if the tires actually lose grip over the course of a run.

•••

Speaking of 2011, there is an empty grid slot available for whoever wants it. However, the story is more about who isn’t bidding. Prodrive and Lola, two very respectable racing outfits, won’t be putting in a proposal this time around. After being soundly rejected for three teams that are barely treading water (HRT, Lotus, and Virgin) and one more that didn’t make the grid (USF1), I can’t blame them. Lola and Prodrive would have been contending for points by now. Sure, they might be cutting off their nose to spite their face but when you’re doing plenty well in other series, why should you jump into F1?

•••

By the way, here’s my post-race plea for sprinklers on tracks. It sure would make strategy races very difficult to pull off. Make them drive to earn the win and how better to separate the men from the boys than on a wet track.

•••

The next round of the 2010 Formula One World Championship is the first European round. The Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Catalunya will be an interesting one because some of what we’ve learned so far will have to be thrown away. The first “domestic” round tends to see a flood of updates to the cars so we could see the order shuffled. Once again, you have to see the Red Bulls, McLarens and Mercedes as favourites. Ferrari has been struggling as of late but maybe their new F-Duct can help them close in on the front-runners. Hopefully they can make it an interesting race. Three straight rounds affected by rain have been a blessing for F1. Unfortunately, Spain tends to be dry which should make for an equally dry and boring race. Even without the new refuelling rules, Spain was always a snoozer of a race and, after the Bahrain sham of a grand prix, I can’t see this year’s being any different.

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