- Karun Chandhok's ESPNF1 column
'Red Bull must have breathed a sigh of relief'Karun Chandhok April 26, 2012
Four different teams winning the opening four races - that pretty much tells us the story of this season! It's becoming very clear that 2012 is going to be one of the most unpredictable and wide open championships in Formula One history.
What is also becoming increasingly clear is that the tyres and the use of the tyres in the best way throughout the weekend are going to be a huge determining factor in the outcome of every grand prix. On paper, Bahrain with its point-and-squirt sort of layout of mainly slow corners and long straights should've favoured Mercedes. In reality, however, the fact that the temperatures were 10 degrees hotter than in Shanghai meant that the balance of power shifted away from them and towards Red Bull and Lotus who like the warmer temperatures.
Sebastien Vettel and the team must have breathed a sigh of relief after the weekend. The pressure has been on them this season after a fairly low key opening three races but right from Friday practice, the Red Bulls looked more competitive. A slight tweak to the rear bodywork around the exhaust seemed to help the team and when it came to qualifying, Seb once again delivered one of his special Q3 laps to take pole. Just when Mark Webber must have started thinking he was going to have the upper hand this year, the reigning world champion bounced back on the first weekend where the Red Bull had race winning pace this season. Seb drove a very mature and measured race I thought. He managed the tyres very well all through, made bold decisions like taking on a set of used options for a stint where Kimi was going to be on new primes, dealt with the pressure of the Lotus hunting him down and then put the hammer down for a few laps to break the DRS gap after the final pitstop.
Kimi Raikkonen was the star of the race. His lap in Q2 wasn't quite good enough to get in the top 10, but by opting not to do a second run and also then not run in Q3 it meant the team had saved four new sets of tyres for the race. This certainly played a big part in Kimi's Sunday success but the plan could've badly gone wrong had the Finn not done what he did on the opening few laps. Getting from 11th to 7th on lap 1 and then picking the cars off one by one in front of him with relative ease was very important for him to make use of the strategy. Had Kimi been bottled up early on, he may not have been able to really close down Seb as quickly as he did. There was some talk after the race about whether the team should've asked Romain Grosjean to let Kimi past earlier but I don't think that would've made too much difference. Kimi actually made a bit of a mistake earlier on when trying to get close to Jenson which allowed Massa to get through. The two or three laps lost there with the guys a lot slower than him would've hampered him more I think. Nowadays with the DRS, although you do lose time behind another car, the gain in straight line speed with the DRS open does help to compensate a little bit.
The DRS on the Lotus seemed to be very effective this weekend, aided in some part by having a head wind down the DRS zone on the start finish straight. Both Kimi and Grosjean were able to come from a long way back to pass people and this played a crucial role in the opening stint. Grosjean also drove superbly this weekend. His extra two runs in Qualifying meant he had less tyres than his world champion team-mate so despite out-qualifying him, the Frenchman couldn't quite match Kimi's pace in the race. Overall though, it was a "shut the critics up" performance after his short-lived first crack at F1 in 2009. I've known Romain for a few years now from when we raced in GP2 together and over time, it's very evident how he's matured from a hot-headed error-prone driver to a calmer, more mature and rounded driver who's now got a great chance to cement his place in F1.
McLaren and Mercedes both had relatively disappointing weekends in terms of points - Lewis' slow pitstops made a mess of his race, although it didn't look like he had the pace to trouble Vettel or the Lotus cars this weekend anyway. Jenson struggled for pace all through the grand prix and the puncture at the end of the race cost him even the few points he would've otherwise scored. Rosberg lost a lot of ground on the opening lap and had a reasonable race to recover to fifth place while Michael Schumacher had a frustrating Saturday with a DRS problem knocking him out in Q1. The seven-time World Champion was openly critical of the tyre situation after the race and, in some ways, I can understand where he's coming from. It must be a bit frustrating for the drivers to always drive holding something in reserve because they have to look after the tyres. The problem for Michael is that outside of the 24 slightly frustrated people driving the cars, the rest of the world thinks that the current tyres are great for F1 so the situation is unlikely to change.
Ferrari had a slightly better race than expected, vaguely able to run with the McLarens for pace and picking up some points. Massa did a good job to stay close to Alonso on this occasion in the race and Ferrari will be hoping that if they can develop the car, Felipe can find form as well to ensure that the Scuderia has two cars scoring points. The upcoming Mugello test will be critical not just for the Italian squad to make progress but also to decide what the pecking order for the next few races will be.
The varying fortunes of the midfield teams is becoming a really good side-bar story of the season. Dan Ricciardo did a great job in qualifying but a messy opening lap ruined his race. For the first time this year, Force India showed the sort of pace we were expecting from them after the pre-season tests where they looked very competitive. Paul di Resta drove a very good race to make the two stop strategy work while the Saubers , like in China, once again seemed to struggle in the race which is the opposite of what we've come to expect of them for the last couple seasons.
The three week break is going to be unusually busy for the teams this time with the Mugello test in between - it's going to be fantastic to see what developments the teams come up with for Barcelona!