Melbourne was a blast but F1’s aero problem remains (Australian GP analysis)

The wet track allowed F1 cars to race side-by-side at Melbourne

The wet track allowed F1 cars to race side-by-side at Melbourne

The Australia Grand Prix was every bit as thrilling as Bahrain was dull.

But don’t expect many more races like that unless we get a lot more rain, because F1’s aerodynamic problem hasn’t gone away – as the later stages of today’s race showed.

Lap 1

Australian Grand Prix: Lap 1 position change

Australian Grand Prix: Lap 1 position change (click to enlarge)

In the pre-race analysis yesterday I wrote that you can count on two things happening on the first lap at Melbourne: the pole sitter keeping the lead and a crash.

Sure enough, Sebastian Vettel motored off into the lead and behind him Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher collided, tumbling down the order.

Further down the field a frightening crash eliminated Kamui Kobayashi, Sebastien Buemi and Nico H???lkenberg. Kobayashi’s front wing fell off, jammed under his front wheels and he slammed into Buemi and H???lkenberg.

Worryingly, this was the third time a front wing had come off Kobayashi’s car this weekend. The team said it did not fail on its own – Kobayashi had made contact with another car at turn three.

With the Virgins starting from the pits and Jarno Trulli not starting at all the HRTs gained the most places. Meanwhile the McLaren drivers converged – Jenson Button slipping back to sixth for fourth and Hamilton climbing four places to seventh.

Pit stops

Australian Grand Prix - pit stops

Australian Grand Prix - pit stops (click to enlarge)

Jenson Button pitted for soft tyres on lap six and completed the remaining 52 laps without another stop for tyres – an impressive feat.

Button’s early switch from intermediate to dry tyres prompted his rivals to follow suit. Though it’s possible that his off-track moment at turn three on his out-lap led them to being more cautious than they needed to.

When they reacted on lap eight Button was 2.1s faster than any other car on the track. The next time around he was 4.3s quicker.

For some reason Red Bull delayed bringing in Vettel and Mark Webber until laps nine and ten respectively. Although Vettel kept his lead Webber lost three places, plus another one when he went off at the start of his out-lap.

Lewis Hamilton lost two places in the first round of pit stops while Fernando Alonso picked up three (one was thanks to Adrian Sutil’s retirement).

The aero problem

Hamilton and Webber catching Kubica, Massa and Alonso

Hamilton and Webber catching Kubica, Massa and Alonso (click to enlarge)

During the first half of the race the Melbourne track was damp and then drying. The lack of grip meant the detrimental effect of running in the slipstream of another car was far less of a limiting factor for the drivers and so we saw lots of exciting passes and changes of position.

But it was a different story towards the end of the race. As the graph above shows even though Hamilton and Webber were up to two seconds per lap faster than Alonso/Massa/Kubica, once they caught them they couldn’t get close enough to pass.

Yes, Hamilton had asked a lot of his tyres in closing the gap to Alonso, making the job of passing him more difficult. But the fact remains the Ferrari driver had covered twice as great a distance on his rubber and Hamilton was faster. The McLaren driver couldn’t get close enough to try a pass because, now the track had dried, the cars were once again extremely sensitive to running in disturbed air.

Hamilton finally put a move on Alonso as the Ferrari driver became desperately short of grip, locking up his tyres at turn 13… and we all know what happened next.

This tells us two things about the much-debated question of – brace yourself for that horrible phrase – “improving the show”.

First, aerodynamics is still a big problem and fully dry races are likely to be much more processional than what we saw today.

However, because all the cars at Melbourne started on intermediate tyres none of them were forced to use both dry tyre compounds. As a result we saw some drivers pit more than others and as a result lapped quicker on fresh tyres later in the race – creating the opportunity for racing.

In the dry at Bahrain we saw no major differences in strategy among the front runners because of the mandatory pit stop rule. Removing this rule, and the requirement for the top ten qualifiers to start on the tyres they set their fastest time on should, looks like a good way of improving the quality of racing in F1. The next few races should provide more evidence for whether this is a good idea or not.

Read more: Bringing back refuelling will not solve F1’s overtaking problem

Race charts

Australian Grand Prix: Race chart

Australian Grand Prix: Race chart (click to enlarge)

Here are the race charts showing the gap between the race leader and the other drivers (top) and a version of the chart based on the leaders’ average lap time (bottom). The lap chart (below) shows the position of each car on each lap.

Australian Grand Prix: Lap chart

Australian Grand Prix: Lap chart (click to enlarge)

Australian Grand Prix: Race chart (average times)

Australian Grand Prix: Race chart (average times) (click to enlarge)

2010 Australian Grand Prix

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