There has been an interesting response from fans to the racing we saw yesterday in the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Jenson Button, who finished second having started fourth, described the race as “confusing” with 55 pit stops to take in plus countless overtakes to try to evaluate.
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, their thinking goes, but on balance I think that the new style of racing worked quite well and was genuinely entertaining.
First we need to accept that F1 has gone through many changes over the years; we had tyres that had to last throughout qualifying and the whole race in 2005, for example. It made for some fun races, but seemed unnatural.
There has been too much tinkering with the rules over the years, ostensibly with the goal of more overtaking, that much is clear. But taking an overview, you would have to say that the outcomes of the championships since 2004 have largely been unpredictable (except 2009) and that many fans would accept that there were some really good seasons, like 2007, 2008 and 2010. In detail however, many would argue that the actual racing during those years was lacking.
That part of the equation has been addressed by what we have now. The races are eventful and the action will appeal to new viewers and casual fans, even if the talk of DRS/KERS/degradation seems like goobledygook.
The tyres do no last long, so the drivers must either a) look after them or b) make more pit stops. Kamui Kobayashi did the former but still managed some stunning overtakes which quickened the blood.
It’s very important to recognise that the passes we saw yesterday were mainly due to the difference in the age and condition of the tyres on the cars. Of course we saw the DRS wing helping one driver to get alongside to attempt a pass and that is what it is intended to do.
And we also saw the difference between a car with KERS and one without in many of the overtakes, for example Webber being passed by Massa on lap 22. But Webber pitted at the end of that lap as his tyres were gone, whereas Massa’s had another five laps of life in them.
Another example was Hamilton’s pass on Petrov on lap 26, shortly after his second pit stop. This was an important pass in terms of not losing touch with Vettel. But Petrov’s tyres were 11 laps old. Would we rather that pass hadn’t happened or do we accept that the varying patterns of tyre stops will make such passes commonplace?
There are three drivers of more overtaking in other words and arguably we could do away with KERS and DRS and just have the short-life tyres and still have a great show.
It was unfortunate and rather contradictory in thee midst of all of this, that the great battle between Hamilton and Alonso ended up with both getting stewards’ penalties and even more unfortunate that the result was that Hamilton lost a place and Alonso didn’t, which doesn’t seem fair given the circumstances. It won’t stop them racing like that in future, because they are both racers, but it sends out a rather odd signal given that drivers seem to have been given a green light to pass by the rules.
One thing I’ve learned after a lifetime in motorsport and 22 years in F1 is that the cream will always rise to the top, whatever rules or conditions you run the events to. Surely it is better to have the emphasis on drivers using skill and judgement to manage their tyres and pounce on rivals when able to, while the team strategists have to think on their feet, rather than succumb to the dominance of aerodynamics over everything?
F1 is a hype driven sport, we see it all the time and we saw it in the other direction after last year’s awful race in Bahrain, for example. This year, like last year will settle into a pattern and we will have some thrilling races.
Pirelli’s Paul Hembery took a rather defensive line after the race yesterday, in the face of some hyped up reaction to the orgy of overtaking and pitstops. He said that this was the blueprint they were asked to design tyres to and that if F1 doesn’t like it he can supply rock hard tyres which will do one stop races.
I think he and Pirelli are more confident now about their products than they were during Barcelona testing, when things were looking rather dicey at times. They have weathered the first two races and know two things; that with the harder tyre they trialled in practice and other potential compounds back at base, they can pretty much give F1 whatever it feels it wants and also that the teams are getting better at managing tyre wear and this will improve further as the season goes on.
“People don’t want to go back to a procession,” said Hembery after the race, “We have been asked to do something and we have tried to do it. I thought it was good for the show, but if people think it’s not right, we will change it. It’s hard for us, we are in the middle. Everyone needs to decide.
‘If I am going to be criticised for making the races more exciting, I don’t know what to say.”
A final note on this; ironically although we have all this action going on during the races, it looks like we could have a runaway world champion, so effectively it could well turn out to be the opposite of what we’ve had in recent years, which was great competitive seasons with average races.
Watch out for my full analysis of the Malaysian race strategy, with a deep dive into the key decisions which decided the outcome – The Strategy Report, brought to you by UBS, coming soon