The European Grand Prix at Valencia will be remembered for the enormous accident suffered by Mark Webber from which he mercifully walked away. But it was also another race where some vital decisions were taken in the heat of the moment, which shaped the outcome, especially when Webber’s accident triggered a safety car.
There were some important decisions to be made in qualifying, with a tricky one as to which tyre to use. There wasn’t much to choose between them and some people found that the hard tyre was fast on the second lap, but the soft was also faster for some on its second lap.
What was interesting was that having shown well in the first part of qualifying, some teams went backwards in Q3. The increasing heat made some teams struggle, including Renault, Mercedes and Force India, while Red Bull and Williams gained.
One interesting observation is that Red Bull has a setting on the engine, whereby the ignition is retarded on the over run, which maintains exhaust gas pressure even when the driver lifts off the throttle. This maintains the performance of the blown diffuser and keeps the downforce up when it’s most needed. It’s not something you can do for more than a lap or two as it damages the engine, but it gives that vital fraction of a second which keeps Red Bull ahead of the rest in qualifying.
Webber’s accident happened early in the race, lap nine, and for the drivers who started the race on the soft tyre, which was all of the top ten runners, it provided an opportunity to switch to the hard tyre for the rest of the race.
It was an inconvenience for the runners who started on the hard tyre, such as Michael Schumacher, because it inclined him into stopping earlier than the ideal for the soft tyre, which he would then try to take to the finish – a big ask. More of Schumacher in a moment.
It was obvious to all teams as soon as they saw the images of Webber’s car in the air, that a safety car was inevitable.
At this stage it was all about where your car was on the circuit and whether it was possible to pit quickly, before the safety car came out and get back out on track again. Regrettably for the other runners, the safety car did not manage to pick up the race leader, Sebastian Vettel and this was to have a major influence on what happened next. Vettel and Lewis Hamilton were able to get away and it spoiled the race.
Hamilton, who was second at the time, reached the safety car line at the same time as the safety car crossed it and passed the safety car, which is against the rules. He received a drive through penalty for this, but it would turn out to be only a time penalty, as he gained the advantage of a clear lap while the safety car held up all the cars behind him in which to change his damaged front wing. Even better for Hamilton, Kamui Kobayashi, who started 18th on the hard tyre, decided not to pit at all and ended up the car behind Hamilton at the restart, So as he held up the field, Hamilton was able to build enough of a margin to serve his penalty without losing a position.
The two Ferrari’s were caught out by the circumstances. They were the first cars picked up by the safety car. So they lost places to the cars behind them on the road, who were able to pit immediately. The Ferraris had to follow the safety car around until they were past the Webber crash site at which point they were waved through.
Robert Kubica was the first car to get into the pits, followed by Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. Adrian Sutil benefited from this too.
Michael Schumacher was also caught out by the position of the safety car. He pitted and was held at the pit lane exit, because the safety car was coming through, although Mercedes argue that Schumacher could have been safely released and that the red line was lit prematurely.
Schumacher’s choice was either to switch to soft tyres then, expecting the track to improve as the race went on and therefore be kinder to the tyres, or to do a Kobayashi and stay out. But he would have had to take the soft tyre at some point. Kobayashi delayed it to the end and then showed that on a new set of tyres, he was able to attack and make up places. Schumacher could have done the same, would have run third for most of the race, and as his car is faster than a Sauber, he would have built enough of a gap that he would lose fewer places when his inevitable tyre stop came.
This was after all the strategy, which he had intended to do, by starting on the hard tyre. So the safety car, and the fact that they had already pitted Rosberg so there was no need to queue the cars up, made them take a gamble which failed to pay off almost immediately because he couldn’t get out of the pits. He lost 16 places as a result of being held in the pit lane. Kobayashi’s result shows that Schumacher could perhaps have finished in the top six.
Valencia was the first time this season that we have seen cars queuing up in the pits under the new safety car rules. Two drivers who lost a lot by queuing were Felipe Massa and Tonio Liuzzi. Apart from the five or six additional seconds, they lost track positions too. Massa was fourth before the safety car, 17th afterwards. Speaking to engineers, it seems that in light of what happened, the decision to queue in that situation is being reviewed and we may not see that again with the current safety car rules. Probably we would only see it if the track was wet and doing an extra lap would be far slower.
Part of the reason why so many places were lost is because the field spread in Valencia is not that big, so after nine or ten laps the cars are still quite bunched up, which does not create the gaps for cars to slot back into,