Full European Grand Prix Race Analysis

By Peter Windsor @Race Driver.com

June 28, 2011 – The stats will inevitably pile up as Sebastian Vettel continues his charge through the Grand Prix circuits of the world – but here’s a couple more, courtesy of the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia: not only was this the third proper F1 race (we won’t count Indy ‘05 here) in history to finish with no retirements; it was also the one with the greatest number of finishers (and therefore starters) – ie, 24. A lot of people would also like to add, I’m sure, that this was the most boring of the year to date – but that’s another story: that’s a reflection of Seb Vettel’s total and easy-looking domination of F1, 2011-style. DRS? No-one in Valencia could get near enough to Seb even to try it; ban changes to the engine maps after qualifying? All that did was give us a Red Bull Racing one-two on Saturday – and…it would appear…a much less competitive Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team on Sunday.

Boring, though, this was not; not from where I stood. There was a moment, after pit stop two, when Seb accelerated back into the race with Mark Webber’s RBR7 and Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari filling his mirrors. The gap from the leader was officially 1.4 sec; watching them, they were about a blink apart. Seb had blown it under pressure in Canada; and Fernando had already proved he could out-race Webber: he had passed him, having pushed Mark into a braking error, earlier in the race (on lap 21). Now – lap 31 – Webber had regained second place with a better pit-stop cycle.

And so here they were, running one-two-three – Vettel, Webber and Alonso. Webber would have to push Seb hard; he would have no option. And Fernando would want to regain second place, thus to put Button-like pressure on Seb Vettel.

For me, the 20-or-so laps that followed were amongst the best we’ve ever seen from Vettel – and I say that not because he was ultra-spectacular in the oversteer-sense of the word or because he was necessarily having to overcome any massive disadvantage.

I say it because the only way he was going to win this race was by making no mistakes and by gradually, sector by sector, carving out the tiniest of margins. He needed to conserve his tyres (Pirelli options at this point); to take no risks amongst the back-markers; and he needed to conserve his fuel.

He needed, under pressure, to be perfect.

Which – as we have seen over the years, and as we saw as recently as Canada – is one of the most difficult things in F1.

Fernando was quick, too, in Sector 1 of Valencia; very quick. He could see the two RBR7s ahead of him, rear wings flashing in the afternoon sunshine, rear tyres square to the road under acceleration. Fernando could gain ground on Webber under braking for Turn 2 – and he could match, generally-speaking, the RBRs in terms of raw grip. The 2011 Ferrari had never felt better – and Fernando had shown that at the start, from the dirty side of the grid. He should have qualified third but he had made his first major mistake in qualifying this year – had fallen foul of that old weak spot. Braking from terminal velocity at the end of the long straight, where the rear flap had been flat, Fernando had jabbed the Brembos a fraction too hard and had unsettled the rear. He caught the moment with stunning reflex, as he does, but decided instantly to abandon the lap and to speak of “saving the tyres”. P3 was gone, though – a genuinely-attainable P3. Fernando would have to redress on Sunday.

I’ve remarked several times in my columns this year about the fluidity of Fernando’s driving: the sudden, angular steering inputs of the Renault days are long gone – even if Fernando’s left foot is still prone to “jolts”, as we saw in qualifying. Watching his steering input from onboard cameras in comparison with, say, Seb Vettel’s RBR7, however, it is pretty clear that Ferrari have helped Fernando enormously by giving him a higher steering ratio with which to play. In other words, he has to move the wheel more to get a reaction – something that has helped him to “soften” his inputs and thus extract more from the Pirellis on initial turn-in. Quite how Ferrari have done this I’m not sure: it maybe with the steering rack ratio; it maybe with a larger steering wheel. I know that several of the teams are looking at larger wheels – “wheel” being a bit of a mis-nomer these days, given the shape of the laptops-cum-steering devices! – and that Pirelli are not complaining about this trend at all. Their tyre shoulders can generally take much less punishment than could the Bridgestones or Michelins.

It was interesting after qualifying to see Sebastian Vettel walk from his RBR7 over to Fernando’s Ferrari, there to study the F150th steering wheel paddle layout. I’m only surmising here, but I suspect that RBR had noticed an additional “paddle” on the Massa Ferrari and that Seb wanted to see (a) if it was on Fernando’s car and (b) what it does. I can reveal that it is not actually a “paddle”: it is an additional “lever” at the back – a bit like the steering-wheel removal lever – that I understand is used for brake balance adjustment. Some engineers think differently, pointing out that brake adjustments must by today’s rules be “mechanical”, but I believe that electrical energy can be used providing the lever is not activated whilst the brakes are on. This is something that McLaren tried a couple of years ago, believing that it would help the drivers keep their hands on the wheel for longer, but then they discarded it because it wasn’t particularly popular. Ferrari’s ex-McLaren engineer, Pat Fry, is obviously a believer, though: thus the new adjuster on Massa’s car.

Fernando often “sees” the first corner of a race with total clarity – and he did so at Valencia. The move, he could sense, would be to the outside: there’s plenty of room there at the tight Turn Two and most drivers seek the racing line through the very fast Turn One. Moving to the inside is an instinctive reaction, born of the FIA’s strict no-weaving code and a desire to protect the racing line.

And so Fernando vaulted down the outside from what could have been fifth or sixth…to third! The crowd erupted! The race was on…

Valencia 2011 – Courtesy of Pirelli

Now, after the second stops, the race was delicately-poised. Fernando began to push Webber hard; Webber began to put pressure on Seb. The crowds rose to their feet each lap as the trio burst past. Fernando needed only a few metres more again to find two straight-assistance from his DRS.

What stood out in clear 3d at this point was Seb’s complete intransigence. He hit the same piece of scorching Tarmac every lap; he applied the power at exactly the same moment, give or take a millisecond or two. And he bound all his inputs with rounded, polished transitions. With Webber, certainly, and to some extent Fernando, there was always a moment when, first, they were travelling in straight line and, second, they were arcing into a corner. There would be jink, a flair, just before they reached the point of minimum speed. With Seb, the moment of change was almost imperceptible, woven as it was into one complete moment. The “smoother” the style the fewer the jolts; the fewer the jolts the more the driver feels the surface of the road; the more he feels the surface the less he is caught unawares; the fewer the surprises the better he manipulates the car; the better his manipulation the greater his consistency; and so on and so on. Corner by corner. Sector by sector. Lap by lap.

The temptation, of course, when you’re leading in situations like this, is to brake later, to apply the power sooner. Seb wasn’t seduced by that. He concentrated 100 per cent on feeling the car. It would be the only way – the true way – to win.

Nor was Seb substantially faster than Mark or Fernando: he just made no mistakes – or fewer mistakes than the two he had to beat. One tenth gained here. Another there. His RBR7 seemed to float over pieces of road that tortured others. Running as they were – zap, zap, zap – the differences between the three of these drivers stood in clear relief.

Looking back, Mark did a great team job in this phase of the race – even if this implies that Seb could relax in the knowledge that Mark was “dealing with” Fernando. In reality, Seb knew that Mark was looking for every possible opening that might occur – and that Mark was in a car as good as his own. And he knew that Fernando on fresh Pirelli softs was never going to go away. The only way forward was through consistent, near-perfect, inputs.

And so it unfolded. The gaps began to grow. 1.4 sec became 1.5 sec. 1.5 sec became 1.8 sec. Fernando drew closer to Mark; traffic intervened; Seb was baulked – and then he was on free road again. Again he inched away.

This was where Seb Vettel won the Grand Prix of Europe – here, in the eye of the mid-race storm. By the time they reached the third pit stop window (Pirelli primes), Seb was clear. Only a slow pit-stop – or some other mis-hap – could beat him.

Fernando did regain second place. Mark ran wide as he entered the pit lane and then subsequently was obliged to go into short-shift mode to protect the lower gears; he would finish third. Fernando was 8.6 sec behind Seb V as he emerged from his final stop – and at that point he backed away. P2 for Ferrari, in Spain, would be reward enough.

McLaren? McLaren were strangely off the race pace. Lewis Hamilton qualified third, as I say – but it was an unconvincing third in the context of Fernando’s error. Jenson Button, for his part, found oversteer in Q3, which for Jenson meant that he was effectively out of contention. Then, in the race, neither driver could live comfortably with Ferrari’s pace, let alone Red Bull’s. If McLaren knew why this was the case of course they would have put things right. As it is, we can but speculate that maybe they were hurt by Pirelli’s decision to race the mediums and softs, rather than the softs and super-softs, in Valencia. McLaren looked good on the super-soft red tyres in both Monaco and Montreal; on the yellow (soft) and the white (medium) they looked nothing like as grip-laden. From a more distant viewpoint you could also say that McLaren seemed to be even less competitive in the race than they were in qualifying – an implication that they were hurt more than most by the FIA’s tight new engine map rulings.

Nor was it a good weekend for Kamui Kobayashi. His car wasn’t good; no doubt about that. Even so, there’s no excuse for a driver of Kamui’s quality to be out-raced by his team-mate – particularly when his team-mate is a rookie on a one-stop strategy. Kamui’s error in practice, when he lost his car before the last corner and scraped along the wall, comes firmly under the heading of “sloppy”, even if he did minimise the damage with Alonso-like reactions. If there’s one thing you carry in your head as you go to Valencia it is, “always prepare for the last corner with a ‘flat’ car” – carry minimal lateral load, in other words, as you slow it for the last corner. That incident didn’t hamper Kamui’s weekend in any way – but it was a barometer of what was going on in the collective minds of the team. They couldn’t find initial tyre temperature – then they cooked the fronts. There’s a fast-developing cliché in F1 upon which many of the teams are falling back: “we had problems in qualifying but we’re very confident for the race; we always race better than we qualify”. That is meaningless rubbish, of course, because it is based on the premise of magic – black magic, if you want to factor in the tyres. It looked to me as though there was too much of that mindset in Valencia and that drivers like Kamui were massively under-used because of that. Sauber should have known better than to run the Pirelli primes mid-race on Kamui: that was the time he should have been making up track position with carefully-nursed Pirelli options. Aside from that, I think Sauber’s performance also showed how cars that are “light” on tyres – cars like the McLaren, too – found the Pirelli mediums very difficult to maximise on the smooth Valencia track surface.

It was a long, hot, competitive race – the more so because of the lack of retirements. Jaime Alguersuari qualified 18th after missing some untimed practice but gained huge track position with a 23-lap middle stint (on Pirelli options!) and then a late-race stop for primes; he finished an excellent eighth. Adrian Sutil upstaged the (under-performing) Lotus-Renault-Lada drivers by qualifying top ten and finishing ninth; and Sergio Perez, as I say, made a heroic comeback by running one-stop to finish 11th.

There wasn’t a lot of overtaking – but that was for the good, for the passes that did take place were significant. Jenson Button couldn’t find a way around Nico Rosberg early in the race, even with the help of DRS – so Jenson made the pass into Turn Two, just when Nico was least expecting it: DRS in reverse. And then, later in the race, the same Nico was able to catch and pass Alguersuari mainly with the help of DRS. There wasn’t so much passing that it was ridiculous, in other words – but there was more than there would have been without the dreaded aid. The overall problem, of course, is that the Valencia street circuit itself is not particularly interesting or dramatic. As good as it looks from aerial shots, from ground level it is all walls and similar corners – all 25 of them. It is never going to be a circuit that produces lots of overtaking – DRS or not.

None of this, however, detracts from the circuit’s capacity to extract the maximum the world’s best F1 drivers and their most sophisticated of cars; on the contrary: we saw three of the best out there in Valencia – Vettel, Webber and Alonso – in close, spellbinding stand-off.

That cameo will in time be seen as a part of the much larger, all-enveloping production that will be F1, 2011-style.

Seb Vettel’s 2011.

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