[Updated] We’ve grown so used to seeing almost perfect reliability from F1 cars that what happened on Sunday in Valencia with both Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean retiring from potential race winning positions, seems surprising.
Throw in Lewis Hamilton also retiring from a podium position after crashing out with Pastor Maldonado and it’s a real throwback to the 1980s, when finishing a race was never a given, even for championship contenders.
Since the early 2000s the cars have become super-reliable because teams have imported quality control processes from industry. Last year’s European Grand Prix was unique because it featured all 24 cars finishing the race, the highest number of finishers in Grand Prix history.
Both Vettel and Grosjean retired with electrical problems caused by an overheating alternator on the Renault engine.
The retirements this year were costly; for Grosjean the chance of a first Grand Prix win for him and for his Enstone based Lotus team, for Vettel and Hamilton the sight of Fernando Alonso scoring a maximum 25 points on a day when they go home empty handed.
Alonso now has some breathing space at the top of the points table; he has 111 points to Webber’s 91, Hamilton’s 88 and Vettel’s 85. With his record of scoring points in every round, this margin gives him something to work with.
Of all the F1 drivers I’ve known over the years, Alonso always seems to have points and permutations in his head at all times. When he comes into the unilateral TV interviews after the podium, he always wants to know championship positions to confirm what he’s worked out in his head on the slowdown lap.
And going into events he is always thinking about what needs to be done numbers wise and who he needs to stay ahead of or close up to. Last year there wasn’t much to be done with Vettel already certain to be champion at this stage of the season.
But this year, with things being much more open, he has every reason to believe that he can challenge for the title.
Valencia showed us that the Red Bull, with its significant rear end and blown diffuser upgrades is now clearly the fastest car in the field, but the multiple problems suffered by Webber’s car on Saturday and then Vettel’s retirement on Sunday will undermine confidence a little.
This is the Red Bull way, to push to the limits all the time, new parts arriving in boxes at all hours of the day and night.
In his short but stellar career, Vettel has lost a number of wins through reliability problems. One thinks of the start of 2010 when he lost certain wins in Bahrain and Australia through technical problems, then later that year there was the engine failure in Korea. Last year’s problem in Brazil deprived him of another win. With Sunday’s disappointment that’s five more victories that could have been added to the 22 wins he has from 89 starts.
Alonso has control for the moment then and the Ferrari will have an upgrade at Silverstone but they too cannot relax as the McLaren will be upgraded there and the fast corners on the track will really suit the Lotus. So the pressure is still firmly on Ferrari, as team boss Stefano Domenicali acknowledged last night,
“Our car is still not the quickest. In my view Red Bull, or the Red Bull that I have seen this weekend, is the quickest in terms of pure performance,” he said. “In the race it was leading comfortably, the pace was very strong. That is something that we need to look at. They had problems with reliability, but we are not, in my view, at the level that we should be in terms of the performance.”