Fernando Alonso underlines his class but qualifying and DRS far from perfect
Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reflects on a Chinese GP that divided opinion but which leaves the title race fascinatingly poised
By Martin Brundle. Last Updated: 20/04/13 12:24pm
Fernando Alonso's 31st Grand Prix victory was a class act and very well judged.
Once again he showed his great all-round talent in qualifying, at the start and in overtaking, along with tyre and strategy management. It was his first victory in 13 races however which begs the question of why this talent doesn't always pay dividends.
A good grid position was key and he calmly managed it from there. He has such presence and confidence in the way he goes about his job on days like that, and it must motivate the team like crazy to have him around. Without the clumsy knock and slightly unlucky damage to his front wing in Malaysia, and the subsequent wild gamble not to pit, he could easily be leading the World Championship. It's ominous for the rest of the pack but there's a long way to go.
I'm really happy for my old Benetton engineer and now Ferrari chassis Technical Director Pat Fry. He's getting some reward for the pain and misery he must have suffered in recent times.
Formula 1 needs Ferrari to win occasionally at least, to my mind something feels right about that - unlike China's qualifying hour. To watch a triple champion, Vettel, trying not to do a lap time, as another former champion, Button, was coasting round endeavouring to leave the mould marks on his medium compound tyres only to be able to sneak over the line, as Vettel pitted, to take eighth on the grid with a two minute five second lap. All off-camera to boot so nobody knows what the hell they are up to as we were watching the seven drivers who did at least try for one flying lap.
Add to that a nine-and-a-half minute opening Q1 with nobody on track, and all the Q3 action taking place over just three minutes and we had a non-qualy show. Now that gives us a mixed-up grid and many unknowns for race day, but we need to spice up qualy, either with reward tyres for Q3 runners if used, and/or an obligation to set a representative percentage lap time in each session or take a grid drop. The 107% rule, not always applied, only relates to Q1 to filter out truly unsuitable cars or drivers.
The high points of qualifying were quite exciting, there just weren't many of them, and the fans are quite right to demand to see the likes of Vettel really pushing the limits if they are going to take the trouble to watch.
Some race fans, paddock folk and media thought the race was boring which confuses me to be frank. I thought it was a really solid race and we didn't know the podium line up until the last few metres with the Hamilton/Vettel fight. We had six different leaders, nine lead changes, and an intriguing split strategy.
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A very key aspect was that many of the midfield and tailenders elected to start on the soft compound, as the top seven were obliged to do. This meant that when the sharp end of the grid had to pit very early in the race they had a lot less traffic to contend with when they emerged from the pits, and it cost them very little time against the new leaders like Hulkenberg, Vettel and Button who had started on the much more durable medium compound. And so thankfully, those who had bothered to do a qualifying lap were rewarded.
I remember the painful days when we used to line the cars up with the fastest at the front and the slowest at the back on super durable tyres, and then be disappointed that they finished largely in that order. So I'm happy to stand on the grid having conversations with people much cleverer than me who also have no idea who's going to win. I do think that the tyre degradation and difference between the two compounds are a little extreme right now, but Alonso showed perfectly well that it's manageable. As did Red Bull in Malaysia.
It does mean though that you really have to pay attention to the race and frankly anybody in the grandstands who doesn't have clear and consistent commentary or pictures and data available must be in the dark as to what's happening once the many and varied pit stops begin. They are complex races without doubt.
Many were looking forward to having Webber and Vettel side-by-side after the Malaysia spat for the full 'Red Bull in a China shop' combat. Mark Webber's fuelling issue put him in the pitlane for the start of the race, and then clumsy contact with Vergne forced a pit stop where it seems the rear wheel wasn't attached properly.
The Red Bull team are reigning triple world champions, they are unsurprisingly a fiercely professional and dedicated bunch, they get sizeable end of season bonuses based on the Constructors' Championship position, does anybody really think that Webber's problems were somehow intentional? Come on.
The double zone DRS rear wing system was too effective in China. Overtakes were not mildly assisted into the braking zones, they were easy pickings down the back straight and occasionally on the pit straight too. The teams have really aced this DRS package and the advantage is now 12 mph, plus the natural slipstream effect. The position and length of the zones need tweaking again at some circuits.
Not only Alonso impressed, there were some very good drives from Raikkonen, Hamilton, Vettel, Button, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg and Di Resta. If Red Bull are truly feeling that the Webber/Vettel relationship has become untenable they could do a lot worse than sign Raikkonen now for 2014. They are spoiled for choice too with a trio of young guns in Ricciardo, Vergne and Da Costa.
You can't but help feel that Mark needs a new environment too, and I really hope that's in F1 because he's still a front-running class act.