Tire strategy impacting early F1 races

Red Bull gambled on pitstop strategy at the Chinese Grand Prix and lost, opening the door for McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton to capture a thrilling race that opened up the early fight for the Formula One championship.

Hamilton beat the Red Bull pair of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, putting an end to Vettel’s dominant start to the season and setting the stage for an intriguing series of races in the European section of the F1 campaign.

Vettel earned both the pole position and the victory in the two opening races and was at very short odds to make it a hat trick of victories when he also claimed the pole in Shanghai.

However, Red Bull went for a two-pit stop strategy and Vettel was left a sitting duck as he tried to nurse his worn tires in the closing stages of the race and was hunted down by Hamilton, who had made three stops and had much fresher rubber.

The Briton passed the German on lap 52 of 56 and surged clear for a win that gave McLaren hope that it can compete with Red Bull for the 2011 title.

Hamilton took the checkered flag, but Webber got the plaudits as driver of the day, having charged through the field in the second half of the race for a podium finish after starting 18th.

The Australian was the only driver in the race to start on hard tires, going for 10 laps before switching to soft tires for the remainder of the afternoon, using a three-stop strategy to storm past those doing their last stint on hard tires.

While that tire strategy paid off, it was a bad call in Saturday’s qualifying that left him stuck all the way down on the grid. Red Bull thought it had enough pace to send Webber out – without the malfunctioning KERS power-boost – on hard tires for the final run in the first session of qualifying.

They thought wrong. He struggled to get heat into the rubber and the team was left red-faced when Webber was eliminated.

Vettel’s ill-conceived two-stop gambit was the same strategy that cost Hamilton in the previous race in Kuala Lumpur, where he was passed by his pursuers as his tires rapidly degraded. These results indicate how important it will be for teams to make the right judgments in how the new Pirelli tires will perform.

Deliberately designed to degrade more quickly than their ultra-hardy Bridgestone predecessors, the Pirelli tires have brought in-race strategy back to F1. Combined with the adjustable rear wing that greatly aids overtaking, these rules have brought near universal acclaim for transforming the sport from the processional to the genuinely competitive.

After an indeterminate season opener in Australia, where the tight street circuit negated much of the tire and wing impact, the new rules had been the main contributor to very exciting contests in Malaysia and China.

Another team to receive a boost from Shanghai was Mercedes. Nico Rosberg led for a good portion of the race and likely would have finished on the podium if not for fuel consumption concerns that forced him to back off in the second half of the race. Michael Schumacher made a great start to vault from 14th to ninth after one lap and finished eighth.

Following a disappointing first two races, Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said after the Chinese GP that the key to the improvement was to stop adding new components and instead concentrate on understanding how to make the existing car work better.

If that improvement continues through the European races, Mercedes could yet be a force in this year’s title fight.

The enthusiasm at Mercedes was the reverse of the gloom at Ferrari, with both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa looking slow once the hard tires went on and the fuel loads diminished over the second half of the race.

Ferrari technical director Aldo Costa said there is a disconnect between the car’s aerodynamics in the wind tunnel and how it actually performs on the track.

Already smarting from the failure to land last year’s world championship, the patience Ferrari exhibited in maintaining its key staff from 2010 may be stretched if the Italian outfit can not quickly remedy its ills.