Tyres. If one word crops up more than any other in this 2012 Grand Prix season, that is indisputably it.
Twice in the last three races Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari has led in the late stages, and twice the car’s tyres have kept it from taking the win. This is no criticism of Pirelli, for all drivers receive exactly the same tyre allocation, and may do with them as they wish: this season, more than in any past, success in F1 has been all about juggling the compounds, of being on the right tyres – and ‘unlocking’ their full potential, of course – at the right time.
Folk have described F1 this year as ‘a lottery’, and certainly there has been an element of that in some races, but it might be more accurate to suggest that gambling, with regards to tyres, has been more prevalent than usual. Identical tyres do not work identically on different cars – nor, come to that, in the hands of different drivers. That may have been true since Nuvolari was a lad, but never to the extent we are seeing in 2012.
Alonso was picked off (by Lewis Hamilton and others) in the closing laps of the Canadian Grand Prix, his team having gambled on a one-stop strategy, which didn’t quite work. At Silverstone Ferrari’s gamble was that it would rain at some point in the race, so that Fernando would not then be obliged to use both the dry compounds on offer.
It didn’t, though. After days of appalling weather, Sunday remarkable stayed dry at Silverstone until long after the race was done. Alonso’s hope had been that he could confine his dry weather running to the hard compound Pirellis: unlike most of the front runners, he started the race on them, and stayed with them at his first tyre stop. Most of the way he seemed to have the race under control, but when it didn’t rain, he had no choice but to take the soft Pirellis for the last 15 laps – and that was when Mark Webber began to catch him.
Because qualifying had been run in the rain, the normal rule – which requires a driver to start on the tyres on which he set his time – did not apply. Everyone was free to choose on which compound they would start, and all the front runners – save Alonso and Hamilton – chose the soft. In the early laps there was evidence that the hard Pirelli was going to be the tyre of choice this day, for while it might have been expected that Webber would initially be quicker than Alonso, the opposite was true. By the time Mark made his first stop (changing to hard tyres) on lap 14, Fernando was five seconds up the road.
Almost from lights out, the British Grand Prix was really only ever between these two. Alonso, putting all his guile and delicacy to work, had taken pole position – Ferrari’s first in a very long time – but Webber as good as equalled it. At the start Fernando ‘protected’ his position in the style of today, and the two cars almost touched, but contact was somehow avoided, and after one lap Schumacher, third on the grid, was already being dropped.
Michael actually did Alonso and Webber a great service, for quite soon a queue – comprising such as Massa, Vettel, Räikkönen, Maldonado and Perez – formed up behind the Mercedes, which – surprise! – defended its position in robust fashion. Massa finally found a way by Schumacher with a brave move into Stowe.
Another who would assuredly have figured in this group was Grosjean, but on the opening lap there was contact between his Renault and di Resta’s Force India, which brought Romain in for a new nose, and sent Paul into swift retirement. Grosjean’s subsequent comeback drive – to an eventual sixth place – was one of the highlights of the race, peppered by many fastest laps on the way.
On lap 11 both Maldonado and Perez made their first stops, rejoining together – and, both on ‘cold’ tyres, crashing together almost immediately. The Sauber tried to go round the Williams on the outside, but Maldonado’s car kicked out in mid-corner, and the cars spun off in unison. It was unfortunate, certainly, but there was no malice intended – it looked like a pure ‘racing incident’. In that light, Perez’s subsequent outburst came across as a touch extravagant, an attempt perhaps to cash in on Maldonado’s reputation for living for the moment. Apparently, though, the stewards agreed, for the Venezuelan was later fined 10,000 Euros.
Alonso apart, Hamilton was the only front runner to start on the hard tyres, and when Fernando made his first stop Lewis briefly inherited the lead. In no time, though, the Ferrari was past again, and thereafter McLaren’s day turned really sour, to the immense disappointment of the partisan crowd. On his slowing-down lap, after finishing eighth (where he had qualified), Hamilton offered a few doughnuts in acknowledgment of his fans, but his frustration couldn’t be disguised: “I pushed as hard as I could all the way, but we just didn’t have pace today – we were slow in the slow corners, and also in the quick ones…” Team-mate Button, who had failed even to make it out of Q1, finished a couple of places further down.
In the middle stint of the race, when both were on hard tyres, there was stalemate between Alonso and Webber, Fernando maintaining a lead of five or six seconds, and looking very comfortable. At around half-distance news of rain nearby came in, which will have made Ferrari spirits soar, but it never materialised, and when Fernando made his last stop, the soft slicks it had to be.
Five laps earlier Mark had made his final stop, but of course he – having got his soft tyres out of the way in the first stint of the race – was able to put on more hard Pirellis, and these enabled him to begin closing on the Ferrari as the race went into its last period.
Was Alonso paying out line, treating his soft tyres gently so as to have something in reserve for the last few laps? It may have looked that way, but it wasn’t the case. On the soft Pirellis, the Ferrari was nothing like as potent as it had been, and Webber relentlessly brought down the gap. Four seconds back on lap 40, he was right on Alonso’s tail by lap 46, and next time round DRS sent him sailing by into the lead.
It was a great victory for Webber, this, and it came at the end of a weekend in which he had outpaced team-mate Vettel in both qualifying and the race. Having led for so long, Alonso was of course disappointed to have lost a victory, but there was some consolation in the fact that, if he had dropped World Championship points to his pal Mark, he had gained on all the other title contenders, not least Vettel and Hamilton. More to the point, perhaps, the Ferrari had shown itself to be a front runner on merit, and when you consider where it was back in March, when the season started in Melbourne, that is pretty remarkable.
Vettel paid the price of making an indifferent start, so that he was one of the bunch trapped behind Schumacher’s Mercedes in the early laps, but in truth he was never quite on his team-mate’s pace, so third place – and 15 points – was a decent result. Perhaps, though, after the way he had run away from everyone in Valencia, he will have been a touch surprised by the events at Silverstone. Webber is firmly back to his 2010 frame of mind, when he led the championship for a long time.
For Massa, the British Grand Prix was another step in his quest for redemption, his wish to be thought of again as a front-rank Grand Prix driver. No, he couldn’t match Alonso, but he drove hard and fast all weekend, qualifying fifth, finishing fourth, and if he continues in this vein Ferrari may yet reconsider its plan to replace him in 2013.
The Lotuses were fifth and sixth, after again promising more than they delivered. Raikkonen, though, drove a strong race to fifth, and Grosjean – for me the revelation of the season thus far – was superb after that early stop for a new nose.
Schumacher? Well, he was a touch wistful – as you would be if you’d qualified third, and finished seventh. Even before the start of practice Michael said he was hoping for a wet race, and perhaps, if the forecasts had been accurate, he would have been higher up the results.
McLaren, though, came away from Silverstone perhaps more dispirited than any other team, for hopes had been so high. Hamilton had qualified eighth and finished in the same position, and although Button drove well from 16th on the grid to a championship point, there was no hiding their disappointment. “It’s not just the Red Bulls that are faster,” said Jenson, whose slump continues. “It’s the Ferraris and Lotuses – and maybe the Saubers and Williams, as well…”
Now Hockenheim awaits, and last time we were there, the Ferraris finished first and second. Mind you, everyone thought they understood tyres then…