Sunday, 17 April 2011

2011 Chinese Grand Prix

For probably as long as I've seriously followed the sport, there's been a constant stream of suggestions and ideas for how to make F1 a more exciting sport to watch, and to try and remove the processional nature of it which had become something of a trademark under the Schumacher years. From KERS and DRS to a complete overhaul of the aerodynamic restrictions, to slightly more radical suggestions such as artificial rain, there have been plenty of ways discussed to liven things up a bit.

It turns out that the simple solution is just crappy tyres. The race today perhaps didn't have any huge moments of drama to make it a real classic, but it's almost certainly the most action-packed race I can remember with a dry track. To take a quote from Martin Brundle's commentary this morning:

"It's all the cars. All the cars are fighting all of the other cars."

Usually that could be taken as a really stupid thing to say, and it still sort of is, but it does describe the race this morning pretty damn well. There was an almost constant stream of action through the field. I don't envy the TV director for the race today, because sometimes there was literally too much stuff happening at once to show everything. In watching a replay of an overtake that had just happened, we'd come back to the live footage to find that the running order had changed again.

The strategy used to be in how the cars ran fuelling, but since refuelling was banned pit-stops were something of a formality. Now that the tyres degrade rapidly, and there's a marked difference between speeds running hard and soft, and running new and old tyres, the strategy is back. When you have different strategies, you get cars running at different speeds at different points in the race, and when you get that, you get overtaking and excitement. The late charges of Hamilton and Webber as the cars around them were struggling to see their tyres out to the end of the race was thrilling to watch, and gave a lot more excitement in the last ten laps than there's been in recent years, where the order is usually pretty much decided after the final run of pit-stops. Arguably Rosberg would have been further into the mix as well, had he not had issues with his fuel running low.

After qualifying yesterday I was somewhat apprehensive of how the season was going to run, because Vettel's pace just seemed to be completely dominant. Perhaps if he hadn't been beaten by both McLarens into the first corner he would have just stripped away from the field and the race outcome would have been completely different, but today I think showed that he's perhaps not as untouchable as his raw pace would suggest. McLaren switched (I'm pretty sure) onto a three-stop strategy and it paid off for them against Vettel, and salvaged a race that looked to be slipping away from them after the first round of stops.

It might diminish later into the season when the teams get to grips with how the tyres work a little more, but for now they're really putting a fair bit of excitement into it, and it's not excitement which detracts from the spirit of the racing either. Sprinklers (and DRS to an extent) seem like steps towards making F1 motor-based entertainment rather than motorsport, and while it would make for superb viewing, I feel like it could undermine the nature of the sport somewhat by moving too far into imposed theatrics rather than just the racing itself being the spectacle.

This was in China too, where the circuit has given some interesting racing in the past, but isn't really regarded (yet) in the same way for producing classics as circuits like Spa or Suzuka are. If it's any indication of the rest of the season to come, then this could be an absolutely fantastic season, although at the moment Vettel still looks a bit likely to just run away with things.

Another thing that struck me was that out of the 24 runners, there was only one retirement this morning - Alguersuari after his rear wheel fell off, having not been put on properly during his first stop. There was absolutely no contact between anyone in the first corner, and it seems like massive carnage at the first corner is something of a rarity these days. At most there'll usually just be a couple of damaged front wings, and it's somewhat impressive given how tight things get that the drivers all get round with such regularity. It's possible that the cars are just a bit more manageable into the first corner, or that perhaps more positions finishing in the points put a bit more emphasis on finishing the race rather than trying something risky into the first corner.

It's three weeks until the next race, which would usually piss me off, except it means the next race is the weekend after my exams are done, so I'm actually somewhat grateful for it.

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