Fernando Alonso read the tyre situation perfectly to edge ahead of Felipe Massa
But Mark Hughes expects the Brazilian to challenge again in Bahrain
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 16/04/13 1:13pm
The apparent reversal in China of Felipe Massa's recent performance parity with Fernando Alonso at Ferrari was created by a very specific problem of the Shanghai weekend - and how each of them understood and dealt with that problem.
It was not about Massa somehow losing the impressive speed he has displayed since Japan last year.
The crucial moment of understanding for Alonso came in Friday afternoon practice as he did his qualifying simulation on the very delicate soft option tyre. The front left was the generic limitation of the weekend for everyone. The long, slow right-handed loops of turns 1-3 and 11-13 accounted for that, putting a huge strain on the delicate rubber.
In qualifying simulations drivers were finding that the soft tyres were grained to griplessness by the end of the lap - giving them problems getting through the turn 14 hairpin efficiently and ensuring the final left of 15 onto the pit straight was a big adventure. Time-consuming, wheelspin-inducing astroturf waited beyond the exit kerbs there to inflict great chunks of painful lap time on those who'd been too greedy with their entry speed for the overstressed rubber.
As the two Ferraris were making their Friday qualifying simulations together, they were extremely evenly matched through the first two sectors. Massa pressed on through the final sector to complete a lap that made him fastest of the session. Alonso though backed off, didn't even try for a proper lap time. He could feel the fronts already beginning to lose their grip.
The key to his whole weekend, he realised, was going to be in controlling this trait. Because with increased track grip likely by Saturday, it was going to be even more difficult - and his qualifying position was going to be crucial to his race result.
Why was increased track grip going to make the problem worse? Because the bigger rear tyres get even more of the increased grip than the fronts - simply because of their bigger contact patch. So the car's balance changes towards understeer, stressing those delicate fronts even more.
So what Massa had felt on Friday was a nice slightly ovesteery balance that allowed him to keep stress of the fronts for as long as possible and although the fronts were losing grip just like everyone else's toward the end of the lap, he was still able to get enough from them to be fastest of everyone.
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Alonso hadn't perhaps been able to keep that stress of the fronts quite as much and he could feel their grip go. It was a crucial clue at the perfect time - and he responded to it. Into Saturday he made adjustments that worked perfectly. In Q3, again the Ferrari drivers were out in formation and as they entered the final sector Massa was ahead by 0.15s.
But through those last two turns he was completely out of front grip, ran out wide onto the turn 15 astroturf and the lap was gone. He'd lost 0.3s in the final two turns. Alonso still had some front grip left, he completed the lap tidily for a time that would put him third on the grid, two places ahead of Massa.
It was the foundation of his victory drive the following day, both in terms of initial track positioning and in how it kept load off that critical left-front. It did this far better than the Mercedes of pole-winner Hamilton and that was how he was able to pass the Merc early in the very short soft-tyred first stint and also how he was able to pull away at will for a perfectly-controlled victory.
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Massa by contract suffered the same front graining problems as most, losing great chunks of lap time on each of his stints. In addition, he had to wait until the lap after Alonso for his first stop with his front tyres now in terrible condition, losing him as many as four places in a pack that hadn't had time to spread, so early were the first stops.
In other words, the very fact that Alonso had got his car to be easy enough on the fronts that he could make his first stop later than most - and thereby oblige Massa, as the team car behind, to stay out even later on tyres that were already finished - just exaggerated Massa's disadvantage.
That crucial realisation of Alonso's on Friday afternoon defined the difference between his victory and Massa's low-key sixth place. It was not about their respective underlying raw pace. In this, Massa was as quick as ever. As we head to Bahrain, a track that will not be front-limited and a place at which Massa has been mighty in the past, expect his recent good form to resume.