Learning from Bahrain
Sky Sports F1's commentary expert Mark Hughes on why Mercedes suffered in the desert heat - and why the weekend may be a critical turning point in their season...
Last Updated: 24/04/13 1:42pm
When the Mercedes team looks back from the end of this season, the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend may turn out to have been a key turning point, the race at which they finally got a full understanding of the car and how it uses its tyres.
Although Nico Rosberg had an apparently disastrous race in falling from pole position to ninth at the end, Lewis Hamilton's progress in the other direction from ninth to fifth - using a different set of adjustments in the cockpit - has given some valuable clues.
Bahrain's Sakhir circuit is an incredibly tough one for the rear tyres. The temperatures of the track are exceptionally high (42-deg C track temp as the race started). Put this together with an extremely heavy braking demand and a couple of key low-gear acceleration zones and the tyres, particularly the rears, are worked extremely hard. The generic limitation for everyone at this track is how effectively you can limit the build-up of rear tyre temperature. It isn't that they wear out - like the front tyres were doing in China the previous week - just that the temperatures keep aggregating until the tyre's structure is so compromised it can no longer support the demands upon it and simply gets slower and slower, up to the point where by persevering you are losing more time than you would by taking the 20-second delay of a pit stop for a fresh set.
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Of the front-running cars the Mercedes appears to be the one generating the most tyre temperature, as Ross Brawn concedes: "I would imagine that every car had excess rear tyre temperatures but just not as high as ours. There seemed to be a track temperature threshold at which the tyre performance really did fall off a cliff and if yours is the car with the highest tyre temperatures you are going to be first to hit that threshold - and it did seem as if we were in and out of that threshold, according to the track temperature. It was at its highest on Friday and in the first part of the race - and that's when we were struggling most. On Saturday and into the second half of the race, our performance improved."
The significant point is that Bahrain is the most extreme thermal degradation challenge the rear tyres will face all season - and even in that situation, as Brawn points out, there were signs that the Mercedes was very close to being on the right side of acceptable. With venues less demanding of rear heat deg, and a bit of further development, it's quite conceivable that the problems apparent in Bahrain will not come to be a recurring theme that will define the team's season. There were some valuable clues in the respective races of Rosberg and Hamilton.
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Nico sunk like a stone from his pole position start and early lead, saying he realised from turn three of the opening lap that he was in trouble. The car remained slow and punishing to its tyres - to the extent that he was forced into a four-stop strategy, one of only two cars to do so. Hamilton suffered an uncompetitive first half but was thereafter quite competitive, finishing a charging fifth on a standard three-stop.
"The changes each of them made to their cars as their races progressed - in terms of brake balance, KERS and diff settings - were quite different," says Brawn, "and they worked very well for Lewis, not well for Nico. This is valuable information that will give us a fuller understanding of what we need to do."
The title challenges of Hamilton and Rosberg could well depend upon what lessons are hidden in their combined Bahrain data.