Inside the Race – Round 9: European Grand Prix

THE DATA SET

“Inside the Race” features performance-based analysis of selected races during the Formula 1 season. The data set utilized for the Inside the Race features are the official timing tables supplied by the FIA’s official timing and scoring reports. Only representative race laps are included in the analysis as the focus is primarily on evaluating on-track performance; therefore, laps skewed by pit stops, safety car periods, or significant on-track incidents are not included.

DRIVER/ENTRIES ANALYZED

Race analysis for Round 9 of the 2010 FIA World Championship, the European Grand Prix, was run for for the following entries:

  • Jenson Button : Vodafone McLaren Mercedes : 3rd Place
  • Lewis Hamilton : Vodafone McLaren Mercedes : 2nd Place
  • Nico Rosberg : Mercedes GP Petronas : 10th Place
  • Sebastian Vettel : Red Bull Racing : 1st Place
  • Fernando Alonso : Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro : 8th Place
  • Rubens Barrichello : AT&T Williams : 4th Place
  • Robert Kubica : Renault F1 Team : 5th Place
  • Adrian Sutil : Force India F1 Team : 6th Place
  • Sebastien Buemi : Scuderia Toro Rosso : 9th Place
  • Kamui Kobayashi : BMW Sauber F1 Team : 7th Place

QUALIFYING SECTOR TIMES

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Notables:

  • Before the European Grand Prix weekend, the consensus in the Formula 1 paddock was that Red Bull Racing would likely have to wait until the British Grand Prix before it could re-build its streak of pole-positions that was broken by Lewis Hamilton in Canada. Like the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the Valencia Circuit features a collection of chicanes and low speed corners connected by flat-out stretches of track, with only a few downforce-dependent sections on the menu. Red Bull was more than willing to subscribe to afforementioned pre-race analysis as everyone at the team, from team principal Christian Horner to drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, readily admitted that Valencia didn’t suit the team’s RB6-Renault package and the European Grand Prix would therefore be a ‘points-maximization’ affair. Saturday afternoon proved those prognostications wrong as Red Bull not only captured pole-position, but completely locked-out the front row of the grid.
  • So how could the pre-weekend predictions from just about everyone, Red Bull included, be so wide of the mark when the rubber met the road? While Red Bull have been tight-lipped about how they actually flipped their own predictions on their proverbial heads, it is clear that the team’s full-time introduction of an ‘F-duct’ on the RB6 in Valencia had a substantial effect on limiting the one deficiency of the Adrian Newey-penned car: straight-line speed. The once-controversial wing stalling device first introduced by McLaren at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix has slowly appeared on the majority of the cars in the F1 field, with the widest adoption of the device to-date coming at Valencia due to the street-circuit’s relatively high-speed layout. A cursory glance at sector times reveals that the Red Bull duo were quick over all sectors, belying the fact that the RB6 was well-suited to the low-downforce demands of Valencia.
  • A closer look at the best sector times reveals that Sector 2 in Valencia was particularly well-suited to the top-speed optimization of the McLaren MP4-25. The particular portions of the Valencia circuit which comprise the 2nd Sector include the two longest straights, as well as heavy braking areas that require little downforce to negotiate. While it comes as no surprise that the McLaren drivers posted the two fastest S2 times during qualifying, it is quite surprising that the Red Bulls were just behind with the 4th and 5th fastest S2 times, less than 0.050 seconds adrift. Clearly, the adoption of the F-Duct on the RB6-Renault played a substantial role in lifting Vettel and Webber to the top of the grid.
  • An interesting phenomena during qualifying for the European Grand Prix was the non-progressive lap time spreads from the Q1/Q2/Q3 sessions. With the return of low-fuel qualifying this year, every dry qualifying session so far this season has seen a gradual decline in overall and individual times with each successive qualifying session; however, this was not the case in Valencia. In fact, a majority of drivers set a faster time in a preceding qualifying session than the last session they participated in. It would appear that some unknown factor in the Valencia circuit’s layout, length, surface, track conditions, etc., lead to a situation in which the majority of teams could not linearly extract performance from their cars in each progressive session as we are so used to seeing at other tracks. This fact is especially evident in that the ultimate fastest possible lap time for each driver did not coincide with the ultimate disposition of the grid following Q3. For instance, combining all 3 fastest sector times would have resulted in Felipe Massa out-qualifying not only his teammate Fernando Alonso, but third-place man Lewis Hamilton as well; however, Massa could only ultimately muster 5th behind both drivers at the end of Q3.

QUALIFYING SPEED TRAP

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Notables:

  • To further illustrate the importance of Red Bull adopting their F-Duct in Valencia, the foregoing table displays the qualifying speed trap figures from Canada, as well as the qualifying speed trap in Valencia. The fastest speed trap recording is shown first, with both Red Bull drivers’ trap recordings shown in comparison to that fastest speed. Whereas the RB6 was nearly 12 kph off the fastest car clocked through the speed trap in Canada, the RB6 was only 5 kph down on the fastest car in Valencia. By any measure, the RB6’s F-Duct had a significant impact on Red Bull closing the speed gap to rivals Ferrari and McLaren that we witnessed at a similar track two weeks prior.

LINE PLOTS

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Notables:

  • The first line plot shows the top 5 finishers of the 2010 European Grand Prix. The shuffled field that emerged following the safety-car period, combined with the impossible-to-pass Valencia circuit layout, produced a data set that revealed relatively little about the pace of the pre-race favorites.
  • What little the line plot reveals is just how much faster Vettel and Hamilton were in clean air than the rest of the top 5 during the first half of the race. This is especially evident in looking at Hamilton’s line plot as compared to teammate Jenson Button, who was stuck behind the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi following the safety car period. Once Kobayashi pitted in the final laps of the race, Button’s lap times dropped precipitously on the way to eventually recording the fastest lap of the race.

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Notables:

  • The line plot of finishers 6-10 reveals the same race development as the line plot of finishers 1-5: the Valencia circuit, in current form, does not lend itself to overtaking opportunities. While Fernando Alonso clearly separated himself from the following pack of drivers before Mark Webber’s accident on lap 9, his times were near uniform to those drivers ahead of him following his safety car debacle. Such a phenomena is a hallmark of a faster car being unable to pass a slower one.
  • While Kamui Kobayashi’s result certainly benefited from Sauber’s strategy to leave the young Japanese driver out on the prime tire instead of pitting with the majority of the field on lap 9, his pace was none-the-less impressive in light of the dismal results he and teammate Pedro de la Rosa have posted thus far this season.

THE SAFETY CAR CONTROVERSY

Due to the after-effects of Mark Webber’s spectacular collision with Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus on lap 9, not much can be gleaned from the typical performance-based analysis of the shuffled order that emerged following the safety car period. However, the deployment and administration of the safety car itself has produced a substantial amount of talking points on a number of incidents and outcomes which occurred during a hectic six-lap period.

The majority of the post-race focus has centered on events involving McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Following the first-lap shuffling which saw Mark Webber ominously fall from the first row of the grid back to 9th, Sebastien Vettel lead Hamilton, Alonso, and Massa up to lap 9 when the Webber/Kovalainen incident occurred. During the run up to lap 9, the field behind Vettel began to spread out as we have come to expect in Valencia, with gaps generally growing between each of the top 4. However, by lap 7, Alonso was beginning to close the gap to both Hamilton and race-leader Vettel. As Vettel crossed the start/finish line on lap 8, the top 10 looked like this:

  1. Sebastian Vettel (8 Laps)
  2. Lewis Hamilton (+3.730)
  3. Fernando Alonso (+5.200)
  4. Felipe Massa (+7.347)
  5. Robert Kubica (+9.173)
  6. Jenson Button (+11.792)
  7. Rubens Barrichello (+14.119)
  8. Nico Hulkenberg (+15.660)
  9. Sebastien Buemi (+16.797)
  10. Michael Schumacher (+18.569)

The running order and associated gaps to race-leader Vettel are critical to understanding what occurred as the safety car notice was issued to the teams on lap 9. The Webber/Kovalainen incident took place as the two drivers approached Turn 12 on the Valencia back straight, some 40 seconds behind Sebastian Vettel. In the time that elapsed between Webber’s car coming to a stop and the time it took for Charlie Whiting to make the decision to signal the deployment of the safety car, Vettel had crossed the start/finish line to begin lap 10, and was already into Turn 1. Behind Vettel, Hamilton and Alonso were both accelerating through and away from Turn 25, and Massa was mid-corner in Turn 25. It is important to note that due to the timing of the safety car announcement and the position of the aforementioned cars on-track, it was a physical impossibility for any of the top 4 runners to partake in the substantial advantage of making their compulsory pit-stop while the safety car was initially being deployed. The following circuit chart should give the reader a good estimation of the positions of the top 10 runners at the time the safety car message was displayed:

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The first runner to have a chance at diving into the pits before starting lap 10, and thereby maximizing track position, was 5th-place Renault driver Robert Kubica. Renault Chief Engineer Alan Permane revealed after the race just how close Kubica was to being in the same position as those in front of him: “When the Safety Car [announcement] came out, it was just before Robert’s braking point for the final corner, which is just before the Safety Car line. His reaction time from the Safety Car lights coming on to braking was about 1.2 seconds and he then entered the pit lane.” Jenson Button, sitting just behind Kubica in 6th place at the time, revealed that he also took advantage of the safety car period by the narrowest of margins: “I had the safety car light and the safety car warning from the team when I went round the last corner of the lap which is a full speed corner. I went round that corner, slowed up, obviously as you slow up anyway after that corner.” Essentially everyone behind Massa, except Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi and Michael Schumacher, stopped immediately after the safety car was deployed on lap 9. The typical pit-lane shenanigans went on with some gaining positions and others losing positions, but the real potential for position movement was in the hands of those who did not stop on lap 9.

What happened next amongst the non-stoppers was the basis for Lewis Hamilton’s eventual stop-go penalty, as well as the entire Ferrari organization’s calls for a rules re-think in the wake of a ‘de-legitimizing’ set of events.  For one reason or another, the safety car was not deployed on lap 10 until Vettel had already passed the pit-out, and Hamilton, Alonso, and Massa were approaching pit-out as well. As the safety and medical cars exited pit-out on the front straight, Hamilton briefly slowed, and then passed the entering safety car, leaving Alonso and Massa behind. Footage of the incident from several angles can be seen below:

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The effect of Vettel and Hamilton not being collected by the safety car, and Alonso and Massa not being quite so lucky, was substantial as shown in the lap time and position charts above. Vettel’s in-lap from P1 on lap 10 was a 2:15.248; Hamilton, from P2, clocked a 2:22.443. Compare those times to Alonso’s 2:43.266 and Massa’s 2:48.266. By circulating one lap behind the safety car, the Ferrari drivers lost close to 30 seconds of time compared to Vettel and Hamilton. What was even more important to the outcome of the race is that Alonso and Massa lost even more time to those runners behind who had stopped on lap 9. As the smoke cleared and the Ferrari drivers emerged from the pits to begin lap 11, Alonso had lost 6 positions to P9, and Massa had lost 10 positions to P14.

The only driver in the field to be more negatively effected by the safety car’s deployment was ex-Ferrari ace and 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher. Schumacher’s fall from third at the time of his pit stop on lap 11, to essentially dead last was the epitome of how close F1 strategy calls can be to brilliance or bust. Formula 1 strategy legend Ross Brawn clearly saw an opportunity for Schumacher to move from P10 to P3 due to the substantial gap between Vettel/Hamilton immediately behind the safety car to the rest of the field who had stopped on lap 9. With about 25 seconds from Schumacher to Kamui Kobayashi in 3rd, Mercedes pitted Schumacher to get him out of the pits in 3rd just ahead of Kobayashi. As Schumacher reached pit-exit with Vettel and Hamilton already gone by, and Kobayashi accelerating down the main straight, Schumacher was initially given an all-clear green, then a hold red pit-exit light, indicating he could not exit the pits without penalty. Schumacher was subsequently held while the entire field passed. The rules regarding pit-lane release under the safety car are incredibly unclear when it comes to situations such as this, and after the race both Brawn and Schumacher asked for clarification from the FIA: “We would like to have clarification about the safety car situation as the red light on the exit from my first pitstop destroyed a race which otherwise would have offered us very good possibilities.”

The real controversy regarding the safety car period came well after the race had returned to green on lap 15. Under obvious protest from Ferrari, the FIA stewards began to examine Lewis Hamilton’s lap 10 pass of the safety car in front of Alonso and Massa. While McLaren could be sure that Hamilton had raised the FIA’s suspicion, the stewards did not officially announce that Hamilton was under review for the incident until lap 22, and only issued Hamilton a drive-through penalty on lap 25, which the McLaren driver served on lap 27. The importance of the 17-lap spread from incident-to-penalty is that Hamilton was able to build up enough of a gap to the slower Kobayashi to take his drive-through penalty and emerge still in 2nd place; on lap 15 Hamilton lead Kobayashi by some 2.5 seconds, but by lap 27 the gap had ballooned to over 14 seconds.

Without surprise, Ferrari were more than displeased by the outcome of the events that transpired in Valencia. Following the issuance of 9 post-race, 5-second penalties for ‘speeding’ under the safety car to various drivers who pitted on lap 9, Fernando Alonso finished in 8th with teammate Felipe Massa finishing out of the points in 11th. Lewis Hamilton finished the race where he had been when the safety car was deployed on lap 9: 2nd. The effect of  all this essentially being that by breaking the rules, Hamilton had finished in a far better position than Alonso and Massa had by following them. This obvious truth was enunciated by Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo after the race: “[T]hose who didn’t follow the rules were penalised by the race officials in a way that was less severe than the damage suffered by those who did respect them. That is a very serious and unacceptable event that creates dangerous precedents, throwing a shadow over the credibility of Formula 1.” Fernando Alonso went so far as to initially say that the European Grand Prix had been “manipulated” by the FIA, a statement which he later retracted.

Now, many fans and observers will process Sunday’s events differently based primarily on their team or driver allegiances; that reality notwithstanding, the 2010 European Grand Prix did happen and now we are left asking ourselves how we feel about it. From a performance-analysis standpoint, the negative effects of the safety car’s administration on Alonso, Massa, and even Schumacher are quite obvious. Compounding the problem was the fact that Hamilton’s drive-through “penalty” for breaking the rules turned out to be anything but a penalty in actual practice. All that said, there are certainly other truths that some, including Ferrari, have notably left out of their post-race observations.

While Alonso and Massa experienced bad luck, or maybe even an unfair result, Ferrari certainly didn’t choose the best option to do the most they could with the hand they were dealt. When it became clear that both Ferraris were caught behind the safety car for an extra lap than their nearest rivals, the only possible chance of salvaging a reasonable result was to keep both drivers out in the same vein as Kamui Kobayashi did. While it is true that Kobayashi’s prime tires allowed him to run competitively until the very end of the race, Bridgestone’s tire engineers indicated that the softer option tire could be run for a substantial number of laps as well with no, or even negative degradation. It is therefore quite evident that the better option for Alonso and Massa was to let the pair gap the field from the front and then make green-flag stops later in the race. It’s unlikely that such a strategy would have resulted in a win for either driver, but it is certainly plausible that Alonso and Massa could have finished in the same positions they were in when the safety car was deployed on lap 9.

In the days since the European Grand Prix it appears that cooler heads have prevailed and Ferrari have taken a step back from their emotion-induced protestations; this is a good thing for Ferrari and the sport as a whole as nothing was done with intent on Sunday. It would also appear that all the teams and the FIA have jointly recognized that the events that transpired in Valencia weren’t the best way to run a F1 race, and a summit has been convened for this weekend to discuss possible changes to the safety car rules and regulations. Stay tuned…

posted by Trey Blincoe

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