The season so far: What we have learnt
David Tremayne assesses the early races which have shown the Britons are in good shape, Red Bull are beatable and tyres matter
Circuit de Catalunya
Saturday 12 May 2012
Q What have the early stages of the season taught us?
A So far the season has demonstrated just how much influence tyre performance has on the quality of the racing. And that although the engineers in Formula One are extraordinarily clever, even they have yet to come up with consistent answers to the question of how to get the best out of their rubber. Pirelli's slightly revised tyres are a little less durable and fade quite easily. That is when there is a thermal performance loss due to their effectiveness declining with heat and wear, and why the word "degradation" has assumed such significance. The problem is that a car can work well within the tyres' narrow performance window in the right conditions of ambient and track temperature, downforce and track surface – yet be way out in others. It's a matter of waiting until the boffins find those answers, which Pirelli believe will happen in the not-too-distant future.
The races have also shown that some teams had a much better handle than others on how to maximise the effectiveness of their aerodynamic double diffusers at the rear of the car since they were introduced by Brawn. They have been banned for 2012, significantly levelling the playing field.
Q Will things change in Spain this weekend?
A Few teams are expecting it to, or for this race to be much of an indication of form to come over the rest of the season. That is interesting, because the circuit at Barcelona is always well known to the teams because of the amount of test mileage they accrue here during the winter, so usually what works here will tend to work at most places that follow on the calendar.
Q In Bahrain it looked as if Red Bull had found the magic bullet again, after being off their usual pace in the first three races. Are they top dogs once more?
A Certainly Sebastian Vettel was back to his imperious best in Bahrain, where only Kimi Raikkonen could get close to challenging him. Yet he had looked all at sea in Australia, Malaysia and China. Their performance this year has been far from dominant.
Q Have the other teams missed their chance after Bahrain and will Red Bull, and especially Vettel, romp home from here?
A It does not look like it. The times all season have been extraordinarily close, not just Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes, but Lotus and Sauber too. In yesterday's second free practice session the first 17 cars were covered by less than a second and a half, the top 10 by one second. No one can afford to relax, and their continuing competitiveness will now rely very heavily on the tyre situation and the pace and effectiveness of their technical development programmes.
Q What of the British boys? How are Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button doing?
A Pretty well. The McLaren is fundamentally the best car the team have produced since Lewis Hamilton won the championship in 2008 and it is already a winner – Jenson Button breezed the season opener in Australia and only the rain in Malaysia scuppered their chances after they dominated qualifying. Since then they have proved as vulnerable to changes in tyre temperature as many other front-runners, and McLaren's pit stops have left something to be desired after Button had wheel-changing problems in China and Hamilton did in Bahrain. But Hamilton is second in the title chase and Button third, so they have no need to play catch-up the way they have had to in the past three seasons.
Q Are the two British drivers still friends?
A Absolutely. If they were ever going to fall out, it would have been after their collision in Canada last year, where they talked in the rain-forced interlude and made their peace. One of the cornerstones of McLaren's strength as a team is that they both get along really well. Each believes he can beat the other, but there is great respect between them.
Q And what about Ferrari? How are they doing?
A Chairman Luca di Montezemolo hit the nail on the head last week when he said that the ugly F2012 was not performing the way he had been led to expect. So far the car looks like a lemon, but thanks to Fernando Alonso it has already won a race. You should never underestimate Ferrari because of their record and strength, but they have a mountain to climb.
Q Is Kimi Raikkonen a contender for success this season?
A You bet. He's kicking himself for bottling a pass on Vettel in Bahrain, which would have brought Lotus their 80th victory. Don't bet against him putting that right, sooner rather than later.
Q So go on, put your money where your mouth is: who will win it?
A It's still anyone's guess, but one from Vettel, Hamilton or Button.
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