Twenty-nine years have passed since the last time five different cars won the first five Grands Prix of the year. Back in 1983 unreliability among the fastest cars played a role in some of the early results, but in 2012 all victories have been earned on pure performance in the given weather conditions.
Drivers who have won the previous race have been struggling in the lower reaches of the top 10 at the next, and all the teams are struggling to understand why form has been so hard to predict and the established status quo has been so comprehensively overturned. One element is that the teams always grow closer together during periods of extended rule stability. Unusually, the one big change for this year the ban on blown diffusers has actually helped the process of closing up the field, as it has clearly cost 2011 pacesetters Red Bull and McLaren some of their previous advantage.
But the key to unlocking performance is understanding Pirelli’s latest tyres, which have a narrow working temperature window and require careful management. Even teams who get it right aren’t always confident of why they found the sweet spot, and can just as easily get it wrong at the next race.
“It’s hard to understand how the performance of all the cars is changing,” said Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, “because up to now so many cars and so many constructors have won races. The only thing we can do is keep the pace of improvement race by race.”
“It’s a bit all over the place at the moment,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner. “And what we’re seeing is aerodynamics are far less of a factor than they have been historically. I’m struggling to explain it, as you can see!
“These tyres are a little bit of a black art, and we’re all working tremendously hard to try and understand them. But at the end of the day it’s the same for everybody up and down the pitlane.”
The situation prompts an intriguing question about what is inherently the ‘best’ car, and thus a worthy World Championship winner. It seems that the car with the most efficient wind tunnel numbers or which is the most effective in the factory simulator is no longer guaranteed to be the fastest on the track.
Aero R&D is the biggest drain on the resources of all the teams, and those that spend the most and can rush new parts to the track have traditionally enjoyed an advantage. Similarly those investing the most in simulator technology are not necessarily finding the gains that they would usually expect to see, because the tyre behaviour on a given weekend is so critical and so hard to predict.
“One can’t imagine, with the greatest respect to some of the midfield teams, that aerodynamically they’ve made a quantum step from last year to this year,” says Horner. “And yet in terms of performance they have, so I think that demonstrates that there are other factors in play that are critical to extract performance.” If Pirelli has helped to prompt increasing emphasis on mechanical set-up and clever engineering over a race weekend, and less of a focus on pure R&D expenditure, then that is surely no bad thing.