McLaren ready for roller-coaster ride
At long last the phoney war is over. By the time you read this, qualifying for tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix will most likely be complete and the grid order for the race decided.
Whatever happened, whatever you think you can deduce from it, you can probably forget.
Ross Brawn's prediction yesterday that the new regulations for 2011 are going to turn races "upside down" only served to reinforce the prevailing view within the paddock, which is that races this season are likely to be wildly unpredictable, at least initially.
Not only do we have controversial driver-adjustable rear wings and KERS energy-boost devices, both designed to increase overtaking opportunities at the push of a button, but the new, fast-wearing Pirelli tyres will force the driver into more pit stops. That means plenty of opportunity for inspired decision-making and for calamitous errors.
All of which can only be good news for McLaren, who despite topping the time sheets yesterday, are said to be some way short of the pace of Red Bull, and potentially Ferrari and Mercedes too.
If there is one season to be off the pace of your rivals it is this one, when track position is no longer king. Instead 2011 looks set to be the year of the strategist.
The Woking-based outfit arrived in Melbourne on a wing and a prayer, short of testing miles and confidence. The decision to replace their complex floor and exhaust system with a simpler version -- described as "risky" by team principal Martin Whitmarsh -- appears to have paid off. Jenson Button led Lewis Hamilton home in second practice yesterday, although both were measured in their assessments as to what that meant exactly.
"We are not going to get carried away," Button said. "It's a positive day because we've been able to do so much running and get a good feel for the car in many different fuel loads. But when (Red Bull's) Sebastian Vettel did his quick lap he wasn't using his rear wing, I was watching."
Hamilton allowed that he had sensed an "improvement" in his car, although he stressed he had no idea of what anyone else had been up to with regard to fuel loads and tyres.
Wherever McLaren's 'dream team' end up on the grid, they will not be out of it. Not according to Brawn anyway.
The Mercedes team principal, a man who together with Michael Schumacher formed an unbeatable partnership at Ferrari in the early 2000s gave a fascinating insight into what impact the new regulations might have on the racing this term. "What is going to happen this year is the races are going to be less predictable, and the results will get turned around a lot more because of the tyres," Brawn said. "It won't only be the tyres, as it will be the situations they create, like the safety cars.
"The whole thing will be turned upside down and certainly, for the first half of the season, people will be trying to find the right equilibrium."
Brawn believes that teams will spend the first few races feeling each other out. With new rubber worth up to six seconds a lap, he predicts that every team will want to pit just before the other so as to leapfrog cars.
However, this tactic has to be weighed against the possibility that you might not last your final stint and have to come in for an extra pit stop. Then there is the possibility that teams will sacrifice grid position in order to save fresh rubber for the race itself.
"If you use too many tyres in qualifying to get up the grid, you are going to be penalised in the race," Brawn said. "The guys who find the right balance between what they use in qualifying and what they use in the race will be strongest. It is not necessarily good to be on pole position if you have used lots of tyres to get there."
Brawn's conclusion was crystal clear. "I think the faster cars can be beaten by the sharper team," he said. "If you have the fastest car and you fluff it, you will get beaten."
Which is why Hamilton and Button wore such large smiles yesterday; they know that while their engineers back in England are working furiously to catch up to Red Bull in terms of pace, they can stay in championship contention by outsmarting their rivals and playing the conditions.
Button is famous for his smoother-than-silk driving style, which is super easy on the tyres, while Hamilton is adamant he has improved in this area.
"I'm as good as anyone at tyre management. I think this year is going to be mega," he said. "You're going to see more intelligence, while your understanding of what equipment you have and where you need to use it will come into play a little bit more. It might be technically the most challenging year ever." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Melbourne Grand Prix,
Live, BBC1, tomorrow, 6.0am