One Year On…
What a difference a year makes… Twelve months ago Sebastian Vettel was sitting on pole by a massive margin in Melbourne, now he finds himself sandwiched between the Mercedes and his team mate with a Lotus, and more worrying for him, two McLarens up ahead. Of course, he’s not the only one who’s suffered/enjoyed a change of fortunes, so how does the grid for the first race of the year compare with 2011’s encounter?
The chart below shows the change in relative position behind the front running team of 2011 and 2012’s qualifying session in terms of relative lap time. In this case, the team’s pace is determined from the average of each driver’s best lap time. The latter point is important to note – for example, Kamui Kobayashi’s best lap time from Q1 this weekend would have been good enough to put him through to Q3 but his Q2 lap was poor in comparison. The result is that while both Sauber’s qualified behind Fernando Alonso, they were actually faster than Ferrari on average. In deference to Kimi Raikkonen’s misjudgement in Q1, I’ve also only used his team mate’s best lap to represent Lotus. Coincidentally, the team suffered a similar problem last year when Nick Heidfeld was late taking to the track and unable to set a competitive time and I therefore applied the same judgement.
Red Bull’s slip backwards and McLaren’s improvement to the front is clear, however it also shows that the majority of grid is closer to front, in terms of lap time at least, than they were twelve months ago. The exceptions are Red Bull and Ferrari although the latter haven’t quite dropped back as much as Red Bull as The Scuderia didn’t have a strong start in Melbourne last year either – possibly cause for some hope for fans of the team?
Of course, their grid position is a serious step backward and yet relying on that statistic alone fails to paint the whole picture. The graph below aims to illustrate that: Instead of the teams being placed in Championship order, they’re now positioned in the order they were ranked in each qualifying session. Therefore, you can easily see McLaren’s climb from second best team to the front, and Red Bull’s slide in the other direction down to fourth overall.
Now you start to see why Ferrari’s slight fall back from the front running team has seen them fall behind all but the “new” teams on average pace – the issue isn’t just how much lap time they’ve lost but how much everyone else has gained. This is best summed up by Sauber who are nearer the front in terms of pace than last year, and yet find themselves further down the grid order.
The graph also illustrates how paddock opinion that the front of the grid is close this year is actually born out. It might not appear that way with McLaren locking out the front row but compared with the 2011, there are now three teams right on McLaren’s tail.
It’s only an approximate picture of course. Fernando Alonso could have gone faster if he’d not spun off, Paul di Resta was unhappy about traffic but it reveals more than simply looking at how far down the grid Sauber, for example, are starting. However, what about Caterham, Marussia and HRT?
For clarity of the previous graphs, I separated out the (really-should-stop-calling-them-by-now) new teams. On the face of it, Caterham have failed to close up on the midfield as they once again took their now customary 19th and 20th qualifying positions. And yet, they have made significant gains towards the front of the grid – the largest step forward of all the teams in fact. Unfortunately, like Ferrari, they’ve fallen victim to the improvement of everyone else.
Disappointingly, Marussia have made marginal improvement. However, HRT is more interesting. For the second year running, the Spanish outfit failed to make the 107% cut-off point and therefore failed to qualify for the race. However, they are at least not as bad as they were a year ago, and only Caterham and Mercedes have gained more ground. Once they get running, that could be a cause of worry for Marussia.
Overall, Red Bull and Ferrari seem like the big losers. Then, that maybe should not be so surprising in the case of Red Bull as with the best developed exhaust blown diffuser system at the start of 2011, they have probably lost out the most with its banning – although McLaren appear to have recovered some of that loss. Ferrari, on the other hand, appear to have been a victim of their own decision-making and yet small improvements could see them catapult up the grid.
Unfortunately, for me, perhaps the most disappointing is Sauber. With no exhaust blown diffuser developed last year, they were confident of being able to make up lost ground on the front of the field. So far, the gains have been marginal compared with their closest rivals.
However, that’s all qualifying pace and it doesn’t tell all the story. Race pace may rank differently and by the time the European leg gets underway, many of these problems may have been remedied with the rush of upgrades.
McLaren On Top Down Under
Front page image credit: Caterham F1