Thursday 30 March 2017

F1: Vettel refuses to be overtaken but rivals line up to challenge

DRS has made for more exciting racing but can anyone stop the flying German, asks David Kennedy

T he drive from the airport to the circuit in Istanbul reminded me why the city is as frustrating as it is charming. The five-lane motorway was gridlocked; it was as if the city's 13 million population were all going in the one direction.

Vendors were the entertainment in this interminable three-hour journey that should only take 40 minutes. A man elegantly balanced a silver tray piled sky-high with what look like doughnuts, but was actually simit -- bread coated with sesame seeds. Water, flowers, even bubble-blowing machines, you name it; everywhere people were beseeching you to buy their wares. A motorway where cars and commerce co-exist like it was the most natural thing in the world.

It was another planet away far from F1, DRS and KERS; none of which would have been any use here, though it doesn't stop you fantasising about them. DRS. Who would have thought a dry, three-letter acronym like that could have such an impact on the racing and led to so much comment, not all of it positive, from aficionados who have been baying for more overtaking in the series for at least a generation?

The FIA's clever Downforce Reduction System rear wings have done exactly what was required and last Sunday's Turkish Grand Prix was yet another example of how the simple expedient of moving a flap on the rear wing a few centimetres could have so radically altered the quality of the racing.

Cars are now passing each other almost at will and there is constant movement of the running order throughout the races. Of course, DRS is only of use to a car in a slipstream on a straight. The effect of DRS is to boost the top speed as the car becomes more aerodynamically faster.

Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), on the other hand, harnesses the energy created by the car's braking process. It stores and converts that energy into power that can be called upon to boost acceleration. Pirelli's tyres have been designed to wear out quicker than Jedward's welcome in a Trappist monastery. This holy trinity of rule modifications has led to even better entertainment and less predictable racing than last year's thrill-a-minute rollercoaster season.

However, the naysayers -- who include Mark Webber, Rubens Barrichello and a few other curmudgeons -- believe that the DRS is an artificial aid to overtaking.

The moves are meaningless, they say, because the driver in front is at a straight-line speed disadvantage and, given there are such wildly differing grip levels on competing cars, the car in front is usually powerless to resist. But surely that was very much the point. The only way cars have ever overtaken in any motor race is when there's a significant speed differential.

This has been a classic year save for the fact that Sebastian Vettel has locked out pole position and won four of the five races. Right now, he's in another zone compared with Webber. And the rest are scrambling to catch up.

The FIA could quite easily produce a second edition of their rulebook that allows the DRS to be used right from the start rather than waiting for two laps, by which time Vettel is often four or five seconds up the road. If the leading chaser can stay within 2.5 seconds of Vettel for the first couple of laps, then the race is on and the suspense will be maintained for a lot longer.

At face value, Vettel appears unstoppable but there are signs that Ferrari, McLaren and, somewhat surprisingly, Renault, all have cars capable of challenging the red-hot bulls.

The fact that Webber has dropped the pace a bit is clearly aiding Vettel. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton are also racing clear of their team-mates and consequently becoming the focus of their teams' resources.

Webber needs a big result to get his career, not just his season, back on track. The forthright Aussie surely knows -- and has all but said as much -- that he must look at options further afield next season because there is a queue of Red Bull-trained rookies waiting for a crack at Vettel.

Webber might well pitch up at Renault, a team he once annoyed his manager Flavio Briatore by rejecting. Webber's experience and speed would be a useful asset to the Enstone squad if Robert Kubica doesn't return to F1.

They could do with Kubica now, because they've got their trick forward exhaust working. It's a sweet machine that deserves better treatment than Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld are currently able to give it.

In Turkey, there were signs that Ferrari were at last getting their act together. Alonso's first podium of the season seems like meagre pickings for a man already 52 points in arrears but, as he himself pointed out last week, he was almost as far back with far fewer races to go last year and he still led going into the final round.

He'll be looking forward to a home run in Spain next week. F1's favourite testing venue represents a useful benchmark for their progress. McLaren too expect a swift response with Hamilton at a race that strangely neither he nor Vettel has won.

Last year the Circuit de Catalunya provided the stage for Webber's comeback that was ultimately to take him to the brink of winning the title. That victory and a consecutive one in Canada made up two of his four wins last year. Should he repeat that in Spain next weekend, his 2011 results would follow a tidy countdown of 5 4 3 2 1. But a Vettel win would yield an almost perfect 1 1 2 1 1. Last year the German finished behind Alonso whilst Schumacher, Button and Massa completed the top six.

At the Turkish Grand Prix, the clerk of the course and general secretary was Mazhar Demiralp. His son Mert is group operations manager for Chubb Ireland.

So when Ireland's Status Grand Prix won the F1's support race, in GP3, with Alexander Sims, Mazhar was as delighted as the rest of us. It was a fantastic start to the season.

Those bubble-making machines the mechanics bought from the street vendors were used to full effect on the podium. Vettel wasn't the only one celebrating in Turkey last Sunday you know.

Sunday Indo Sport

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