I don’t know about you, but around these parts summer properly starts with the first European Formula One race of this season. Nothing signals the arrival of lazy afternoons in the sunshine quite like the prospect of rejecting them for an afternoon inside watching the racing.
This weekend all sessions might be worth watching, as Pirelli come to the viewers’ rescue by giving all the teams another set of tyres.
The idea seems to be that with rubber to waste (the extra tyres are of an ‘experimental compound’) all the drivers will be on the track most of the time. That’s not something we’ve seen much of this year, especially in FP1.
Not that it would have been a problem tomorrow, as there will be a lot of new parts on a lot of cars this weekend as the teams try to get Red Bull firmly and reliably in their grip, especially on a Sunday.
Kimi Raikkonen’s win in Australia and Fernando Alonso’s in China have helped disguise the fact that Red Bull have started this season more strongly than in both 2012 and 2010, the photo-finish championships that framed Sebastian Vettel’s easy canter to the title in 2011. They’re the team to beat and clearly have the best balance of speed and predictability, key in this era of pre-planned, strategic racing.
Still, Ferrari is chasing and is, by a long way, the most improved team of 2013. The ‘team’ word there is important; the Scuderia has two cars in the battle this year which could yet prove important, although Alonso needs to get back in the finishing habit first before planning any assault on the title. A bunch of points have already gone missing, what with the front wing, erm… ‘issue’ in Malaysia and the rear wing troubles in Bahrain.
The news this week that Lotus’ James Allison — F1’s official ‘best designer on a budget’ — has handed in his notice is important. Once he’s spent the required summer in the garden centres of the home counties, probably in the company of Paddy Lowe (ex-McLaren man destined for Mercedes), he’s most likely off to Ferrari where he will join a stellar design team working on the new generation turbo ‘hybrid’ car for 2014 and beyond.
Ferrari, like Mercedes, is banking on the new formula working out for them, as well they might, being the only two manufacturers who don’t rely on someone else’s engine. The result this weekend, and in a fortnight in Monaco, can’t not have an effect on the priorities both those teams place on the 2013 car vs the 2014 entry, no matter how big their budget.
And it is the same situation at McLaren, only with the boost turned right up. Ferrari took the world’s press to Maranello this week to tell them its going build fewer cars this year but make more money from them. It also boasted that it has sold all its LaFerrari megacars; McLaren is only two-thirds sold out of its smaller run of P1 rivals. Difficult to ignore a spot of willy-waving there; Ferrari still clearly believes its brand to be superior to McLaren’s.
And McLaren does need to get its act together soon. It could have, possibly should have, won the both world titles last year. But didn’t. And hasn’t since 2008 (driver, Lewis Hamilton) and 1998 (team’s). And it will take a miracle for this year’s cars, visibly inferior to last, to put Jenson Button or Sergio Perez at the front. Do not expect Bahrain’s whinge from JB to be the last, he’s got it coming at him from all sides this year.
It won’t have escaped McLaren’s notice that Lewis Hamilton is third in the standings right now, driving for a team that has scored two pole positions out of four, and could probably have made it three. But Benz still have a long way to go and it seems remarkable that this year’s car continues to suffer from the same tyre-munching habit that blighted its predecessors these last two seasons. It whiffs to us like a fundamental problem, one that cannot be fixed in-season. Still, the momentum is with them.
Is it still with Lotus? We were blown away by Kimi’s drive in Australia and he seems a sharper racer than he was this time last year. The problem is the qualifying and on that front, he’s pretty much where he was last year. Still, it was good to see RoGro get his mojo back in Bahrain. This weekend will be a test as there will be no James Allison. New Technical Director Nick Chester will need to step up to the plate extra quick if the team is not to lose momentum as it did last year; Raikkonen will not stick around for 2014 if it does.