Sunday 27 May 2018

F1: Teams struggling to retain grip amid tyre chaos

Lotus and Sauber are beset by uncertainty over their future, says David Kennedy

David Kennedy

At mid-distance in the Formula One season we've seen all sorts of tyre issues culminating in exploding rear tyres at the British Grand Prix. Pirelli set to work and quickly stirred the cauldron with a 'double, double toil and trouble, fire burn, and cauldron bubble'. This brought forth a broth that rewarded some and hampered others.

A resurgent Lotus emerged from the mix at the German Grand Prix which Kimi Raikkonen could have won had the race been a few laps longer, or for that matter had his two-way pit radio communication not become one-way. His team-mate Romain Grosjean came close too, almost scoring a maiden win, save for the appearance of the safety car.

But Sebastian Vettel grittily clung on to the bitter end and became the first German in seven years to win on home soil. No prizes for guessing who the last one was.

When you consider the two Lotus drivers who filled the other steps of the podium at the Nurburgring circuit may not even be driving for the team next season, their results belie the uncertainty and instability that Lotus is currently facing. Their nemeses lurk everywhere. Ferrari have poached their technical director James Allison while Red Bull is anxious to sign Raikkonen to replace the retiring Mark Webber in 2014.

Lotus will fight, probably in vain, to retain the former world champion. Delayed salary payments must have the ice-man Raikkonen feeling hot under the collar. He's not going to be hanging around for long when a few pit garages away a certain billionaire team owner, with a winning chassis to the ready and F1's best technical head at the helm, is waving a contract and a fat cheque-book. Not to disparage Raikkonen, but it's a no-brainer, save for the not-so-insignificant fact that Vettel would be a formidable team-mate; unless he defects to Ferrari that is.

Grosjean may have redeemed himself in Germany with a gutsy, impressive drive but a paying driver may take precedence if Lotus is to remain financially viable.

It's the same old story. Paying drivers act as a defibrillator to a struggling team but while their money keeps everything pulsating, it doesn't always bring inspiration to the table in terms of results. Morale goes out the window when a team loses motivation.

Lotus isn't alone in that dilemma. Sauber too is clinging to financial starboard as they beseech suppliers to accept delayed settlement of invoices while they desperately seek sponsors. The Swiss team has punched above its weight for so long and it would be a travesty if they were forced out of F1.

Their glimmer of hope lies with the young drivers' test this week. This is an important three-day event for Pirelli as they test and showcase new tyres which will be used from Hungary onwards. Sauber and McLaren are hoping to see a benefit with this hybrid of 2012 construction and 2013 compound. Mercedes is banned from the test, as punishment for their recent illegal tyre test; that's a body blow for the team as it misses out on a rare and valuable opportunity to literally get to grips with the new tyres.

The FIA needs to take some responsibility for the serious Pirelli failures at Silverstone. Restricting testing of what is fundamental to the safety of the sport needs addressing. If a tyre supplier cannot explore every option in its endeavours to produce a safe product and teams are not given the opportunity to test new compounds, that is placing budgetary constraints ahead of safety.

Apart from the participation of young drivers in the test, regular F1 drivers are being admitted on one of the three days, with the stipulation that any set-up alterations made to the car can only be Pirelli-related. It's a form of speed dating for man and his new rubber.

While Pirelli plays topsy turvy with the already irregular pattern of form this season – changing the steel belt for kevlar for Germany was their answer to the exploding tyre debacle – we're seeing some terrific battles with drivers who lost out in the latest rounds of tyre mods. Fernando Alonso and pole position man Lewis Hamilton enjoyed a riveting duel in Germany. Two great drivers stretching their extraordinary talents to the limit as though the title itself were at stake.

Alonso's frustration at seeing Vettel disappear into the sunset to a fourth championship is evident. At least last season the German had the courtesy to wait till the end of the season to show his rivals a clean pair of heels.

Hamilton, while he must be delighted with the progress of his new Mercedes, is also flummoxed by the capricious form. Comparing his plight to Wimbledon winner Andy Murray, he bemoaned the simplicity of his fellow Brit's tools of the trade when he said, "It's just him and the racquet. So many elements come into motor racing . . . electronics, performing, the suspension, the frickin tyres, things that are out of my control".

Meanwhile, F1's sideshow, the GP3 series, a proven stepping stone to F1, has seen some intense competition this season with eight different winners in eight races over four European Grands Prix. Conor Daly scored an impressive first win of the season in Valencia. Status GP finished second in Germany to Kelvin McKee, who is team-mate of Irish driver Ryan Cullen at Bamboo engineering.

For Status, it was a relief to return to the podium as Alexander Sims substituted for one of the regular drivers who had prior commitments. Form changes in GP3 even faster than in F1 which keeps complacency at arm's length.

From the Nurburgring we move to the Hungaroring in a fortnight where drivers will unleash the new Pirellis in race mode. Then it's a three-week summer break that for some will be time to consolidate and for others to commiserate. It seems like yesterday when the season began and yet Hungary will be round ten in the 19-race calendar. Track temperatures will be heating up nicely which will play to Lotus's strengths. Another win would bookend the first half of the season nicely and if it comes before the summer recess it will taste even sweeter.

Irish Independent

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