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F1 - THANK YOU PIRELLI

 Two races in eight days and many of the questions still unanswered after Albert Park have been resolved. Particularly in the area of those round black things supplied by Pirelli. The Italian tyre manufacturer bravely accepted a request from the FIA to produce tyres that would degrade much quicker than the previous product from Bridgestone. The hope was that with different cars running on different strategies there might be more on-track overtaking late in the race as these differing strategies played out. The risk here for Pirelli is that some drivers would be blaming their tyres for lost opportunities and that the casual viewer would assume that Pirelli simply couldn't make tyres that were durable. This would not be an ideal advertising point. Pirelli accepted the risk and produced tyres that have an outer layer that gives good grip but wears down quickly to an inner layer that is overly durable (it would probably last a month of Sundays) but has very little grip. The result of Pirelli's commercial bravery was in evidence in Shanghai with what was possibly the best, most exciting, non-wet Grand Prix in the last twenty years. Grand Prix fans around the world owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Pirelli, for this season now appears to have the prospect of having some of the most exciting on-track racing in living memory. 

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  One question that still remains unanswered is just how fast the Red Rags will be once they get everything actually working on both cars for an entire Grand Prix weekend. We already know it will be bloody fast but just how bloody fast is the question. Die Wunderkind has already racked up three poles, two wins and a second while Webber's record of a third, a fourth and a fifth with two fastest laps has been severely blighted by KERS failures in all three events. Vettel has also been hampered by this problem to a lesser extent but usually not at such vital moments as his unfortunate team-mate. Neither ran with KERS in Oz where Vettel won while Webber, battling with a rear damper issue struggled home to fifth. At Sepang, Vettel had intermittent KERS problems from about half distance but was already well in control of the race. Webber had his KERS die on the warm-up lap and was swamped at the start, dropping from third to tenth by the first corner. That he fought back to fourth with the races fastest lap was a fine effort in itself. But a more astonishing effort came in China. Again Vettel took pole while Webber had his KERS die in the final practice session on Saturday and had to qualify without the system. That, and a bit of a blunder in not using soft tyres in quallie one, saw him fail to make the cut and line up 18th on the grid. Vettel chose the favoured two stop strategy and even when his KERS started playing up latter in the race he still looked a good bet for the win. Webber's KERS was still being temperamental and he chose a three stops starting on the hard tyres. Fifteen lap down and he was only in 17th place.

    This is where the Pirelli bravery kicked in. Vettel was attempting a fairly long final stint and with about ten laps to go his tyres were shot. With no KERS and no grip he was hauled in by a three stopping Hoon. After a couple of laps of spirited defence the Hoon's better grip saw him grab the race lead with just four laps to go. Meanwhile Webber was storming through the field using the three sets of brand spanking new soft tyres. His charge included some stonking passing moves on Schumacher, Alonso and finally Button to take a stunning third place. His fastest lap was an incredible 1.4 seconds faster than anyone else managed in the race. During the final ten laps he was occasionally three seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field and regularly hauling in the leaders at around two seconds per lap. He finished just seven seconds behind the Hoon and three behind his team-mate. If the team can get the car to work properly all weekend and chose the correct strategy, then the rest may just be squabbling for the left-overs.

   Did McLaren's back to basics arse end improve the car by about a second a lap? Err, yeah, probably by more than that. They maintained their fine qualifying pace from Oz in both Sepang and China. Although events conspired against them in Malaysia they both mugged Vettel off the line in Shanghai and led comfortably through the first stint. Old Jense made a rookie blunder and stopped in the Red Rags pit box for his first stop, a move that dropped him behind the Hoon and Vettel. The Hoon's three stop race saw him easily catch Vettel and as mentioned, grab the lead with just four laps to run. A superb never-say-die drive that would have been the drive of the race, if not for Webber.

   Is the Ferrari really a pick-up truck or was Albert Park just a blip. Nope, it may as well be a Ford. They have plenty of work to do to catch the front four. Did the Mercedes upgrades make it a potential winner? Nope. The car apparently loses stability when the DRS (Drag Reduction System - ie; movable rear wing) is activated. Not so much of a problem in the race when it can only be used once per lap. Big problem in qualifying when it can be used on any straight bit of track. Rosberg proved that the car could be a potential contender with a fine drive in China but until they can improve their qualifying performance they will need buckets of luck to get onto the podium. The Unter-ubermensch started back in 14th on the grid while Rosberg again made the top ten but never seriously threatened the top teams.

   Renault is currently battling Ferrari for third best car and picked up another podium at Sepang. This time it was quick Nick who took third place while Vitaly decided he was running in the 1000 Lakes Rally and tried to out-jump the Flying Finns. His airborne antics ended with a damaged tub and a non attachment scenario vis-à-vis his steering column and the dashboard bulkhead making steering just a tad difficult. Awesome on-board footage though.

   Team Willy is currently having its worst start to a season since it ran a March in 1977. Talk is mounting of a major reshuffle in the design team with even Sam Michael hinting that he may have to step aside from the Technical Directors job. Something must be done and soon to halt this decline and stop this great team from imitating the likes of Tyrrell and Brabham in sliding feebly from the sport. It would be disappointing to lose Sam entirely as he is a lovely bloke and very bright but he just ain’t no Adrian Newey. Neither is anyone else for that matter but for what ever reason Sam just hasn’t been able to get the job done. What ever changes, Frank and Patrick just cannot afford to keep going as they are and unfortunately, Sam has been in charge of the design team while the team has been in decline. Mind you, the last time they failed to score points in the first three races of a season was in 1979. And just remember what happened later in that year. Lets hope they can have a repeat of that season.

   Among the minnows Lotus has shown that it has in fact joined the mid-field pack, albeit at the rear of the pack but just getting there is a great stride from last years performances. Their final positions in China may not have been their best results since their return but beating a Williams on actual race pace is undoubtedly their best performance. The Hispania boys proved that their horror in Oz was not a reflection of their true abilities. They may be currently battling Virgin over who occupies the last row of the grid but at least there is little chance of repeating their terrible double failure to qualify again.

   So, Pirelli’s tyres have turned out to be great for the racing as has the DRS. The only quibble I have with the DRS is that the FIA is deciding when and where it is used. I would like to see it being used one per lap at a time and place of the driver’s choice, so long as he is within one second of the driver in front. That way, if the driver behind got a good run on the leader anywhere on a circuit he could bung on the KERS & the DRS and possibly make a move at a less than expected spot on the circuit. And the guy in front would never know exactly when he had to use the KERS to try to defend such a move. A bit like the ‘80s and hitting the turbo boost button, and no-body minded that.

   In other, and very happy, news, Robert Kubica is set to be released from hospital sometime in the next two weeks, "I am starting to feel a lot better now. My recovery is moving in the right direction: my strength and weight are increasing day on day and as a result I will leave the Santa Corona hospital very soon," he said. "I don't have a precise date as yet but I hope to be able to leave within the next 10 days. The mobility of my hand is limited but this is pretty normal in this kind of situation, because the connected arm muscles are still very weak due to the long period of immobility. Things are definitely improving day by day. As soon as I leave hospital, I'll head to my home in Monaco for a short period of rest. Then I'll move to Dr. Ceccarelli's facilities in Italy where I will start a deep rehabilitation program and a preliminary soft training programme. The two programmes will gradually cross over based on the speed of my recovery."

  Sam Snape

 19-04-2011