A traditionally dull race, the Spanish Grand Prix has been transformed in the past two years, but is the huge increase in passing too much of a good thing? Possibly not, according to Formula One journalist Justin Hynes in his latest blog…
Suzuka has a slightly other-worldly carnival-like atmosphere engendered by the crazy local fans (and the fact that the race track is in the middle of a fair ground).
Even Korea has a unique vibe – though that’s more down to the empty grandstands, the grass growing quietly on the paving stones in the paddock and the wonky, faded seaside town atmosphere of neighbouring Mokpo.
So what can you say about the Circuit de Catalunya? Well, you might think of a sea of blue and yellow Asturian flags waving in the grandstands in support of Fernando Alonso, but what you don’t think of is great racing.
The Barcelona track’s special character has always been just the opposite and its monotony has given rise to the kind of racing that could turn an insomniac into a narcoleptic.
Indeed, my first working race in Barcelona, way back in 1999, was so stupendously dull that Eddie Irvine, who’d raced to second place in the damn thing, told me he wished he’d brought his radio with him as it might have made the journey a little bit more diverting.
So how do you reconcile that dullness with the last two Spanish Grands Prix? Last Sunday we were treated to a fascinating tussle for the lead as Pastor Maldonado battled with Fernando Alonso until the final 10 laps when the Spaniard’s tyres finally let go.
Behind them we were glued to the timesheet as Kimi Raikkonen thundered through his final stint, gouging over a second per lap out of the gap to Alonso and Maldonado ahead.
Further back, numerous other little vignettes were being played out. Sebastian Vettel received a drive-through penalty and had to change a nose cone but still bullied his way to sixth place, passing Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the final three laps.
Hamilton himself gambled on a two-stop strategy and, in the final stint, held on with destroyed tyres for 31 laps to claim a useful eighth position from 24th on the grid. Naps were not on the menu.
Of course, it’s easy to explain why the racing is suddenly so exciting: it’s the addition of KERS, DRS and tyres. Each has contributed to vastly improving the racing, adding a healthy dose of unpredictability to how cars and their drivers perform.
But the question I now find myself asking is – do we really need all of those elements? The statistics for this year’s Spanish Grand Prix have yet to be released, so let’s take a look at last year’s. In 2011, there were 29 passing moves made using DRS. That’s a pretty healthy stat for a track that in 1999 saw just one on-track overtaking move. Indeed, between 2008 and 2010, the average number of proper overtaking moves per race was two.
While superficially that might look like a good thing, last year’s race also saw 22 ‘normal’ passing moves in the same race – that’s where drivers used skill and bravery to exploit deficiencies in their rivals and to effect a change of position.The difference between the two sets of stats is that, for me, DRS passes are something of a formality.
Yes, there are circuits where the length of the zone has been judged just right and passing, even with the wing open, is not a foregone conclusion, but for every zone where the battle between defensive KERS use and full-on DRS and KERS attack is delicately balanced, there are a handful more where the pass is a foregone conclusion.
In those cases the only matter of interest is whether the car in front can break the one-second DRS gap to his pursuer.
For me, the real value in this iteration of F1 has come from the tyres. Last Sunday’s best passing moves – or defensive stonewalling – were all carried out by drivers making the most of tyres.
Kamui Kobayashi’s stunning move down the inside of Jenson Button on lap 33 was a thrilling combination of bravery and fresh rubber. Vettel’s moves on Hamilton and Rosberg were the same, as was Hamilton’s superb pass of both Toro Rossos in quick succession.
All involved maximising better grip, picking the ideal moment and brave opportunism. Compare those with the standard DRS button-push, draft and pass into turn one.
OK, in some ways, the fragile Pirellis are as much of an artificial construct as DRS or KERS, with F1 last year demanding a more perishable and variable tyre of the Italian manufacturer compared with previous suppliers’ efforts.
However, the difference between the performance gap induced by tyres and that brought on by reducing drag is that while DRS provides a relatively predictable speed differential, the tyre gap is all over the place, depending on car, individual driving style and strategy.