The intricacies of F1’s 2013 dynamic made the seasons of aces like Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes particularly complex. (LAT photos)
If the 2013 Formula 1 season taught us one thing, it was that the so-called natural order was precarious. During the 19 races, the balance of power between teammates ebbed and flowed far more than expected. Just look at Ferrari. Few, if any, would attempt to argue Felipe Massa is as good a grand prix driver as teammate Fernando Alonso, yet the time sheets show that this year he outqualified his illustrious teammate eight times out of 19. That’s 42 percent of the time compared to just 19 percent from 2010-’12.
At Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton is regarded as being capable of being faster than Nico Rosberg over a single lap and with some justification. He certainly had more pole positions this year, five compared to Rosberg’s three, but in terms of results there was little to choose between them and the German had two wins to Hamilton’s one. You could even make a credible case that Rosberg had been the stronger Mercedes driver.
And while Jenson Button had the edge over Sergio Perez at McLaren over the balance of the year, he was outraced and outqualified by the Mexican during the three events prior to Brazil.
The question is, what is it about 2013 that made the established order an unreliable predictor of form?
Before looking at the precise conditions, it’s worth considering the standard of the 23 drivers who started an F1 race this year. For all the moaning about pay drivers, those most heavily criticized still have impressive résumés and are worthy grand prix drivers. Pastor Maldonado? He’s the 2010 GP2 champion. Max Chilton? He dominated two GP2 feature races from pole position last year. Esteban Gutierrez? A GP3 champion and multiple GP2 race winner. Giedo van der Garde, a Formula Renault 3.5 champion and GP2 race winner. These are seriously good drivers by any measure. While not the outright best 22 drivers in the world, it was certainly a high-quality grid. Were you to somehow create control conditions, with identical cars, identical track pace and identical preparation, every driver’s ultimate lap time would be surprisingly close.
But this also meant that it did not take much for the pendulum to swing from one driver to his teammate from race to race, or particularly, from qualifying session to qualifying session. When you take into account the fact that, behind dominant Red Bull Racing, the competitive spread between teams was extremely tight in this final year of a rules cycle, a small swing often led to exaggerated differences in grid position between teammates.
While the DRS, introduced in 2011, has made overtaking easier, qualifying remains the cornerstone of success. If you start down the order, it’s incredibly difficult to salvage strong results. Just look at where races were won from this year:
Wins by grid position 2013
Pole ” 9 wins
Second ” 6 wins
Third ” 1 win
Fourth ” 0 wins
Fifth ” 1 win
Sixth ” 0 wins
Seventh ” 1 win
Eighth or lower ” 0 wins
On average, race winners started second this year. And the wins from lower down the grid ” Kimi Raikkonen’s in the Australian season opener from seventh and Alonso’s from fifth in Spain ” came in events where tire management allowed cars that did not have the ultimate speed to come through and win. If you start badly, it’s very difficult to recover.
The current qualifying format, with three segments of 20 minutes, 15 minutes and 10 minutes and six cars knocked out in each of the first two stages to set up a top-10 shootout, makes it all too easy to hit trouble. A recent example of this was in India, where Romain Grosjean was knocked out in Q1 because of a combination of the team misjudging the cut-off time needed to make the next stage and his own scruffy lap on the slower compound of Pirelli tires. But in his case, he was able to recover to finish third.
Similarly, in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg, Button and Massa all ended up out of the top 10 and therefore fighting only for minor positions while their teammates all finished in the top seven. This was also due to tires, although not down to choosing the slower compound. Which points us to arguably the most influential factor in the ebb and flow this year ” the tires.Since Pirelli became F1’s control tire supplier in 2011, the characteristics of its rubber have been a major talking point. In Abu Dhabi, getting the fronts up to temperature was the challenge, certainly a major problem for both Button and Rosberg. If a driver went too hard to bring the fronts in, they ran the risk of over-working the rears and turning a car with understeer because of lack of front grip into an oversteery car thanks to the fronts coming in and the rears being past their peak. It was a narrow window and the conundrum was repeated endlessly this year.
Further blurring the issue was the way that cars interacted with the tires varied, with Button baffled thanks to the sensitive nature of the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-28.
?At times it has been very tricky to get a balance, and I don’t know if it’s the tires or the way the aero is,? he remarked earlier in the season, ?but sometimes you think you are onto something and it goes really well. Then suddenly you are not really there anymore. That was the problem in the qualifying sessions at Austin and Abu Dhabi: all weekend the car is quick and then suddenly it’s all gone. Whether it’s the change in temperature, the change in wind I don’t know. The smallest thing can make a big difference.?
The chemistry of “switching on” the tires is horrendously complicated. It’s not just about surface temperature, which can be built relatively easily, but about making the carcass hot enough?but not too hot. Prior to the mid-season tire change, the Pirellis featured a steel belt that built temperature more quickly and did not dissipate it so well, which made life harder for certain teams, notably Red Bull and Mercedes. The tire change certainly removed a limiting factor from Red Bull and played a part in the team stretching its legs.
The tires also had a huge impact on how a race was driven. This perhaps explains some of what we saw between Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes. Hamilton is a driver ideally suited to the sprints-between-refueling stops era in which he excelled when he first joined Formula 1. While grossly unfair to suggest he does not have the ability to manage tires, it’s fair to say that a more cerebral approach to a grand prix weekend is better suited to Rosberg’s mindset. But as Austin showed, if you do start down the order as Rosberg did, it’s hard to make up ground: by running in traffic, tire degradation is significantly accelerated.
On weekends where Hamilton was at the top of his game this year, Hungaroring and Silverstone, for example, Rosberg was unable to touch him (although Nico won the British GP, this was only after Lewis fell victim to a tire failure). But often Rosberg was more effective at picking his way through the minefield that was a grand prix weekend in 2013. It’s a complementary skill set and it resulted in the ever-shifting balance of power between the pair. The bottom line is both Hamilton and Rosberg are very effective.
?I’ve said it before and I’ve said it within the team,? said Ross Brawn. ?Either one of them could win the world championship for us. It’s a matter of how things play out because they are both exceptional drivers.?
There is also the factor of which drivers are “on form” ” effectively, which ones are well-suited to the car/tire combination. In the case of Massa, after a desultory first half of 2013, he improved in the back half of the year, still eminently capable of turning a good single lap. That’s reflected in his qualifying pace relative to Alonso, a driver whose weak suit is arguably his raw qualifying pace. But on Sundays, Alonso comfortably had the legs of Massa, as revealed by the fact that he more than doubled the Brazilian’s tally. At Red Bull, Webber’s strong form toward the end of his final F1 season was down to him gradually adapting his style to the demands of exhaust-blown downforce, something Vettel had long since mastered. But it’s not only drivers whose form has fluctuated. Williams has scratched around at the back for almost the whole season, yet in Austin, Valtteri Bottas qualified ninth and finished eighth completely on merit in a dry race. And this in a car that had picked up just one point in the previous 17 races?
In this case, at least, there was a very clear explanation. Next year, the use of exhaust gases to generate downforce will be properly banned by slinging the exhaust exits to behind the rear-wheel center line. During practice in Abu Dhabi, Williams opted to run in a specification that did not harness the exhaust effect for downforce, removing its “Coanda” exhaust. The result was remarkable. Not only did the shape of the exhausts give more top speed (narrower exhausts are used to increase the gasflow speed when trying to generate downforce by blowing?but they sap power) but it also made it dramatically more stable and the drivers were able to lean on the car far more. Removing the Coanda exhaust should have added a second to the FW35’s lap times, but instead made it significantly more competitive!
That is an extreme case, but the significance of exhaust-generated downforce cannot be downplayed. Sauber is another example. The Swiss team could barely buy a point up until Monza. From then onward, it was ever-present in the top 10 of the grid and Nico Hulkenberg picked up fourth, fifth and sixth places. This was down to a combination of two factors. Firstly, the rear-end package introduced at Hungary that gave it better exhaust-blown downforce. Secondly, the change of tires did help Sauber aerodynamically,
This allowed Sauber to leap up the order, while Scuderia Toro Rosso and Force India took a hit in their competitiveness. Again, because the competitive spread from team to team was so tight, it only took a small swing from one to the other to turn a no-hoper into a regular points finisher ” and a car capable of qualifying and finishing in the top 10 one weekend into one scratching around for points.
And if all of that isn’t complicated enough, imagine what it is going to be like next season. While the new regulations and the anticipated differences between the new 1.6-liter V6 turbocharged engines are likely to spread the field more, there will be a vast number of variables at play. With only 100kg [220lbs] of fuel allowed for the race, fuel management is going to be vital. This could also lead to drivers going quickly one minute, slower the next. As for the tires, nobody is completely sure what will transpire?not even Pirelli.
Only the bold, or foolhardy, would dare make predictions about what’s going to happen come 2014. In fact, we may look back at 2013 as remarkably stable situation by comparison.? But what it won’t be is an indicator of form. That, again, will surely vary from race to race.