Sunday, 25 March 2012

Malaysia: post-race analysis

Well, the tip failed, but the race was hugely exciting and volatile.

It was wet at the start, so all cars started in intermediates or full wets. This meant Hamilton didn’t suffer any problems with his flat-spotted qualifying tyres. The top three remained in the same order as the grid initially, but then Schumacher get hit by Romain “Frank Spencer” Grosjean. The German was spun and half the field passed him.

Almost immediately after the race started torrential rain came down, and the race ended up being red flagged, though not for quite as long as the two hour interval of Canada last year. When it restarted I think Perez was third, but didn’t think he’d be able to hold onto that position.

Grosjean retired after crashing, making it two great qualifying sessions followed by appalling races in a row. Being fast is nice, but not ramming other cars is even nicer.

Button pitted a lap earlier than Hamilton, and leapfrogged him at the pit stops, but it only lasted a few corners. He hit an HRT he was lapping, which took off part of his front wing and meant another pit stop was needed. At this point I believe he was third, behind Alonso and Perez, and it wrecked his race.

Hamilton could do nothing in third. He wasn’t really under threat from Vettel (who later had to retire following a message on the radio) and then Webber, but couldn’t get near Perez. Senna had a good race, nabbing sixth for Williams, behind Raikkonen and ahead of di Resta.

However, Alonso was resurgent in the ‘dog’ of a car, as some silly persons have labelled the undoubtedly excellent 2012 Ferrari, leading the race. But, even better, Massa’s possible replacement Perez was catching him lap-by-lap at a fast rate of knots!

Sadly two things prevented Perez having a chance of overtaking Alonso. Firstly, the pit stop he made was a lap later than Alonso and cost him 6s (it was a slow stop). Secondly, he made a mistake with about four laps to go, and whilst this didn’t cost him 2nd it did mean he lacked the laps to catch up with Alonso. A real shame, as he probably had the pace to get an incredible win for Sauber. That said, second is still spectacular. It can be hard to know how good a driver is when they aren’t in a top car, but Perez looks like the real deal.

Maldonado failed to finish, which enabled Schumacher to get the final points position, behind Vergne and Hulkenberg, with Webber getting 4th.

It’s a bit disappointing to have two losses from two tips, and even moreso that I don’t know whether Button could’ve challenged Perez and Alonso. Hamilton was subdued in his McLaren, but Button tends to do well in wet-dry conditions. Still, it’s early days, and at least I didn’t tip No Safety Car and make it three losses from three.

Alonso, hilariously, is now top of the drivers’ league table, and Perez is 5th with 22 points. In the wet, the Ferrari and Sauber look pretty damned tasty. However, both drivers also benefited from tactical gambles, and from Schumacher/Button suffering misfortune. It’s also worth mentioning Rosberg, who failed to score points again because he was kept out on full wets too long, as a failed tactical ploy.

However, let’s not get carried away. Most races don’t feature monsoons and whilst Malaysia has been fantastic for Perez and Alonso I don’t see either as credible title challengers. Vettel suffered a serious blow by failing, like Button, to score points, and Hamilton’s second consecutive 3rd means he’s second (by 5 points) to Alonso in the standings. More importantly, for the long run, he’s ahead of his team mate and Vettel.

I still think we’ll end up with a McLaren duel for the title. Alonso drove very well today, but in the dry he’s got a severe qualifying handicap. Vettel could be a challenger but he needs a better car. He sounded unhappy before the race and he certainly won’t be happy with zero points.

There’s a three week break until China. Hopefully it’ll be better than last year when I had my worst race of 2011.

Morris Dancer

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Malaysia: pre-race

A gearbox change for Raikkonen meant he got a five place grid penalty.

My cunning plan to hope for dry weather and then back No Safety Car at around 2.4 was dealt a blow when two wise fellows form the main site (one personally in Malaysia and the other with friends there) warned me that a tropical storm was highly probable. Unfortunately the weather forecasts this morning agree there’s a pretty high chance of rainfall, so I’m not betting on the safety car either way.

Q3 was more or less as expected, with the three backmarker teams (HRT, Marussia and Caterham) all going out, along with Toro Rosso’s Vergne.

Q2 was very tight, with the seven eliminated separated by just half a second. Slightly surprisingly both Williams were out, and (less surprisingly) so was Massa. Both Force Indias, Kobayashi and Ricciardo also failed to reach Q1.

Q1 was very exciting. Hamilton got another stellar lap, though I think the set he achieved it on was subsequently flat-spotted (this can be very minor or cause vibrations so bad [as happened to Vergne] that a change is needed). Button came second, again, and Methuselah Schumacher was third. Webber did well to get fourth, although we’ll have to wait and see whether he’ll have one of his rubbish starts again. Raikkonen had the 5th fastest time, but will start 5 grid slots further down due to his gearbox change. Vettel is next, and he’s been quite cunning (possibly). Instead of trying to beat the McLarens on the faster but less durable medium compound he went for the hard tyre. More on this below. Then came Grosjean and Rosberg, again out-qualified by his team mate, followed by Alonso and Perez.

In Australia the prime (in that case the medium) tyre was clearly superior. Any speed loss was fairly small but the increased durability was far more important. Vettel is clearly reckoning on this being likewise in Malaysia, and a number of radio transmissions complaining of tyres going off would seem to back this up. However, it’s worth pointing out that this is not a certainty.

It might be rainy at the start. If so, everyone will be on intermediates or wets (I hope we don’t have a safety car start). Secondly, softer tyres start better, and everyone around Vettel will be on the medium (softer/option) tyre.

My own feeling is that it’s probably a good idea for Vettel.

Mr. Putney’s top 6 bet on Grosjean looks like it might well come off, if he has a reasonable start.

It’s a very exciting but rather difficult grid off of which to make predictions, coupled with the possibility (but not almost certainty) of precipitation. Vettel’s tyre choice in Q3 will also make the race more exciting, but at the same time more unpredictable.

In the end, I decided to back Button for the win at 3.35, with a hedge set up at 1.4. I was tempted by quite a few other potential bets but it’s a difficult race to predict so I just went for the single bet.

Morris Dancer

Friday, 23 March 2012

Malaysia: pre-qualifying

The FIA have, since Australia, reiterated that the Mercedes DRS/reverse F-duct is legal. I’m glad this is the case, as the Red Bull bitching in particular was rather hypocritical given how others viewed their flexi-wings and blown diffusers.

Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit is quite interesting, and should be a better guide to the season as a whole than Australia. It also has quite a lot of straights, and this should help the Mercedes, particularly in qualifying when DRS can be used more than the race. So, we may well see a better qualifying than race performance from the Silver Arrows. The gearbox issue which afflicted Schumacher has been identified and is apparently a one-off (they had sound reliability in testing). Of greater concern is rear tyre shredding, which they think they can mitigate somewhat, if not eliminate. [There’s an interesting analysis of the issue here:]

Malaysia will see the medium compound return and the hard compound (last year’s medium) make its first appearance in 2012. However, degradation may still be a serious issue for strategy as the race tends to be very long and the heat means that the tyres won’t last as long as would otherwise be the case. In P2 Radio 5 had a Pirelli chap, and he revealed that teams saw between 0.1s and 0.9s divergence in lap time between the two compounds. So, as in Australia, the prime tyre might be better for the race, as lost time is not too bad and durability could be more important. People who start in 11th and 12th may be well-placed.

There’s just one DRS zone, on the starting straight.

Last year Vettel and Button had a strong performance in Malaysia, and both also had good races in Australia. The McLaren driver was adept at pulling out a lead from both the start and restart, and staying beyond the DRS window of the following car, suggesting the McLaren is good at rapidly warming tyres. He’s also good at managing them (as Vettel was last and probably this year). Webber did not seem to suffer serious degradation in the race (unlike the early part of last year) but he still leaves the handbrake on at the start.

Lotus could be the most intriguing team to watch. One driver had a stellar qualifying, the other a strong race performance. However, I wonder if they’ll suffer slightly from the extremely hot, humid and prolonged nature of the Malaysian Grand Prix. If they could manage to qualify and race well the car may well be capable of getting a podium, perhaps slotting between McLaren and Red Bull. They had a good race last year, when Heidfeld got a podium.

The practice times are still rather anti-social, but qualifying’s at the slightly more civilised hour of 8am, and the race starts at 9am. I might try giving RTL coverage a go.

No qualifying tip (again, due to the time difference). I’d guess it’ll be rather closer between the McLaren and Red Bull, but the Lotus and Mercedes could also be in the mix.

P1: Hamilton was fastest, followed by Vettel. Then were the two Mercedes, Rosberg and Schumacher, followed by Grosjean, Webber and Raikkonen. The top 10 were rounded out by di Resta Button and Hulkenberg.

P2: Hamilton fastest again, but this time followed by Schumacher. Button was just two one-thousandths behind the German, and followed by Rosberg, Ricciardo and Alonso. Webber, Vergne, Grosjean and Vettel complete the top 10.

It’s quite hard to read into practice, but both sessions were entirely dry at least. It seems that McLaren will remain the fastest, and Mercedes could do well in qualifying (although they seem to have a premium there due to the extra use of their DRS). Lotus and Red Bull could be in an interesting qualifying battle, but I’d be unsurprised if the entire top 8 were a mixture of those drivers in various positions.

Morris Dancer

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The strange second death of Liberal Britain?

The Lib Dems have lost a lot of support in the polls from the last election. This has led to many supporters of the Labour party and the Conservative party to speculate with some glee about an annihilation of the Lib Dems at the next election. But just how bad are things for the yellow peril? Let’s have a look at some hard facts.

In an ideal world, we would look at the seats that the next election will be fought under. But we don’t have their boundaries and we don’t know for sure that the old boundaries are going. So let’s start by looking at the existing boundaries, which are the most reliable thing we have to go on right now.

The Lib Dems have 57 MPs at present. For the sake of argument, I don’t propose to look at seats that they might win. Holding their current 57 MPs will be hard enough. Here are those seats arranged in order of percentage majority (the colour coding indicates which party finished second, seats with more than one serious challenger have asterisks after the swing figure):

The first thing that you immediately notice is that the Lib Dems are fighting three entirely separate battles – one against nationalist parties, one against Labour and one against the Conservatives. Of these three battles, the battle against the Conservatives is by far the most significant. Let’s look at those three battles separately:

First, the Conservatives:

There are 42 seats where the Tories are either second or are in contention on an imaginable swing. On the most recent ICM poll, the Tories are polling 39% and the Lib Dems 15% - a 6% swing to the Tories from the Lib Dems. Only 18 of these 42 seats would survive a 6% swing to the Tories.

Next, Labour:

There are 22 seats where Labour are either second or are in contention on an imaginable swing. On the same ICM poll, Labour polled 36% - a 7.5% swing to Labour from the Lib Dems. Only 8 of these seats would survive such a swing.

Lastly, the nationalist parties:

Here for a change is some good news for the Lib Dems. There are only 7 Lib Dem held seats where Plaid Cymru and the SNP are conceivably in contention (as you will see, I have taken a very generous view of what “conceivably in contention” means in the context of the SNP), and the nationalists are second in only two of these. Both of these look vulnerable on current polling, but of the rest, either they would already have fallen to Labour or the Conservatives on the swings given above, or they would require heroic swings from third or fourth place to the SNP.

On these assumptions, the Lib Dems would keep just 20 seats. And this, bear in mind, is using a poll that is unusually favourable to the Lib Dems at present. Ouch baby.

Is the outlook that bleak? There are 6 reasons to suspect that things might be a bit better for the Lib Dems, even without assuming any improvement in their support.

1. The Lib Dems won’t fight a national general election

The Lib Dems, unlike the Conservatives and Labour, will not seriously be trying to win a general election. They will be trying to hold their current seats (or if polling improves, get a few extra). They’re going to be fighting seriously in 100 or so seats. On current polling, that number may halve. Seats which get disproportionate effort are going to get disproportionate results.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Lord Ashcroft has done polling on marginals:

Lord Ashcroft’s own summary shows Lib Dem activity:

“On the ground, the campaigning battle appears to voters to be intense but, in Labour targets, quite closely fought. Nearly half said they had had literature from Labour or the Conservatives over the last few months, and a fifth said they had had a personally addressed letter. In Lib Dem targets the numbers saying they have heard from the Tories were similar, but the Lib Dems' incessant leaflet-mongering (which we should take our hats off to, however annoying we may find it) apparently continues: 54% said they had had Lib Dem literature, a quarter said they had a letter, and a fifth said the party had knocked on their door in the last few months.”

2. Much of the Lib Dems vote in 2010 was wasted in seats where they did not win – this looks to be their softest vote

In 2010, the Lib Dems improved their polling, but lost seats. Why? Because they piled up votes in constituencies that they didn’t win, following the TV debates. I looked at this phenomenon in 2010:

As I noted then, on the list of Labour's top 150 targets, 125 of those seats are Conservative-held. The Lib Dems polled more than 10% in each and every one of those seats. It increased its vote share in 92 of these seats.

The Lib Dems will not be chasing these voters particularly (see point 1 above). So if the Lib Dems perform in line with current polling, we can expect to see these voters melt away first. This will not harm the Lib Dems in seat count, and probably gives their coalition partners more of a headache than them.

Again, Lord Ashcroft’s commentary on his own polling bears that view out: “it is clear that things in marginal Conservative seats where Labour are close challengers, things look slightly more uncomfortable for the Tories than in the country as a whole.”

3. In most Conservative/Lib Dem marginals, Labour supporters have got nowhere else to go

As I have already noted, the great majority of Lib Dem seats have Conservative challengers. To date, the Lib Dems have been very effective at borrowing Labour voters for their cause. As I noted in the 2010 blogpost mentioned above, in the 20 English Lib Dem seats in the top 100 Conservative targets, Labour polled under 10% in all bar three: Norwich South and Bradford East (in both of which Labour finished second) and Berwick-upon-Tweed. By contrast, in only one of these seats on either the Labour or Lib Dem target list is the Tory tally below 10%: Dunfermline and West Fife.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of such voters feeling let down by the Lib Dems. But what will they do in a general election? Some may now vote Labour. Some may abstain. But given a choice between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, I expect that a substantial number of such voters in such seats will continue to vote for the Lib Dems. Such voters are already attuned to the idea of a wasted vote after years of being told “it’s a two horse race”.

This will help mitigate the swing against the Lib Dems in such seats.

4. In Labour/Lib Dem marginals, Conservative supporters are going to be much more open to voting for the Lib Dems

Much of the post-election discussion has focussed on how erstwhile Lib Dem voters of a left-leaning persuasion regard their alliance with the Conservatives. There has been practically no discussion of how Conservative supporters in Labour/Lib Dem marginals might act in future.
To date, the Lib Dems have had nothing like the same success in persuading Conservatives to lend them their votes. But with a proven track record of being able to work – more or less – with the Conservatives in government, they may now do rather better. And there are rich pickings to be had in Labour/Lib Dem marginals if they can.

How, for example, will the 6,278 Conservatives in Danny Alexander’s constituency decide to vote next time? Last time the Conservatives placed fourth – might they be recruited to his cause? Each such recruit would make the 9.3% swing that Labour require and the 11% swing that the SNP would require an even more Herculean task.

5. In three and four way marginals, even where the Lib Dems are no longer popular, the opposition may not coalesce around a single candidate

I have looked so far at swings in isolation. But this is a three and four body problem in some constituencies. Take Argyll & Bute or Edinburgh West. In both of these constituencies, four different parties will fancy their chances. Who are voters to decide is best placed to defeat the Lib Dems? This will make required swings harder to achieve.

6. Lib Dem MPs put localism into action, making them unusually strong incumbents

In many ways, this is a function of the other five points noted above. But Lib Dem MPs have shown greater incumbency resilience in past elections and there is no reason to assume that it will be different this time around.

The net of all this is that I expect that the swing against the Lib Dems will be roughly 2% less than might otherwise be supposed in both Lib Dem/Conservative marginals and Lib Dem/Labour marginals. (This is not particularly scientific and you are welcome to disagree on the scale, but I do stand by my conclusions that there will be a noticeable effect.) On the figures noted above, this would mean that the Lib Dems would suffer an effective adverse swing of 4% in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals and 5.5% in Lib Dem/Labour marginals. This would leave them with 32 seats. Still ouch, but not quite so bad. If the pro-incumbent effect is 3%, that’s another 6 seats saved on top of that. And that’s without assuming any swingback at all.

Of course, this is all on the assumption that the old boundaries apply, and ignores the effect of retirements, any particularly Scottish anti-Lib Dem venom and the impact in university towns. But taken as a whole, I suggest that while the Lib Dems are in for a rough time, the likely extent of their seat losses is much overstated.


Sunday, 18 March 2012

Australia: post-race analysis

A traditional start to the season, with my tip on Schumacher failing. However, I do take some consolation from the fact he was third, and his failure to finish was due to a gearbox failure. Luck swings both ways during a season, and the failed tip this time was due to misfortune rather than bad judgement. (I suspect the safety car would’ve made or broken the bet later on, had he remained).

I slept in, again, but caught the latter half of the race and have a decent picture of the first half.

Button passed Hamilton pronto, and then retained the lead for almost the entire race. This was highly impressive. He built a gap over his team mate and later did the same thing over Vettel. This follows the unusually competitive qualifying performance Button put in. He may be the man to beat this year.

Hamilton never had the legs to beat Button, but was pretty unfortunate that the safety car emerged on his out-lap, allowing Vettel to leapfrog him by pitting immediately. On the plus side, he retained a podium spot and one race doesn’t make a season.

Grosjean had an encounter with Maldonado with meant the Frenchman’s brilliant qualifying was followed by a failure to finish, but he has showed promise for the future. Maldonado put in a stellar performance, until the final lap of the race when he crashed from an almost unbelievable 5th.

Mercedes had a day to forget. Schumacher jumped Grosjean off the line, and was running third until his gearbox decided to go on strike and ended his race. Rosberg made the mistake (or had the team make it for him) of remaining on the soft compound for two stints and only then shifting to the more durable mediums. He ended up a paltry 12th.

Red Bull had a much better race than qualifying, helped by a dollop of luck. Grosjean and Schumacher were both out, Rosberg’s strategy cost him and the safety car was perfectly timed for Vettel to pass Hamilton. Fortune notwithstanding, their race pace was relatively better than their qualifying performance and they’ll be delighted with 2nd and 4th for Vettel and Webber.

Ferrari had a mixed performance. Alonso somehow got the car, which was far better in the race than I’d expected, all the way up to 5th. Massa decided to crash into someone else this year, and hit his compatriot Senna (although, in fairness, this may have been due to suspension damage that had occurred prior to the crash).

Sauber were the most improved team from qualifying. Perez adopted his signature approach of not bothering to stop more than the single mandatory time, and made it work well. He achieved a good 8th, although it could’ve been a little higher (Raikkonen passed him on the final corner). Kobayashi did a little better and got a great 6th.

Raikkonen recovered from dire qualifying to score 7th, which he should be happy with. The Lotus seems pretty good, but it’s hard to say whether it can fight in the race with the big boys. He also provided some comedy radio moments including this:

“Why do I keep getting blue flags?!”

Engineer: “Kimi, they’re for the cars behind you.”

The points were rounded out by Ricciardo in 9th and di Resta in 10th. The Scot’s team mate, Hulkenberg, had to retire after picking up damage.

So, what did we learn?

Firstly, make no mistake. McLaren is top dog. They dominated qualifying and only failed to get a 1-2 in the race because the safety car came out precisely when it did. I put a small sum on both drivers for the title pre-season, and won’t be laying right now. Vettel’s 3.3 or thereabouts, and that’s too short. The safety car won’t help him every race, and Mercedes and Lotus will be stronger elsewhere too.

Secondly, the soft compound may’ve been marginally faster but the medium compound was king in the race. Superior durability overcame the small speed disadvantage. In the next race we keep the mediums but have the hard compound as well (which was last year’s medium). In China we revert to softs and mediums.

Thirdly, some teams have a great variance between qualifying and race pace. This might just be because it’s a new season and they haven’t quite got the setup sorted yet, so we’ll have to wait and see if it’s repeated. So far, Ferrari have been rubbish in qualifying and good in the race (well, Alonso was) and Red Bull have behaved similarly. And Sauber, now I come to think of it. Hard to comment on the Lotus and Mercedes because the latter had an early retirement and one chap made a mistake in qualifying and the latter also had an early retirement and then made a strategic mistake.

It was a bit disappointing that my solitary tip didn’t come off, but at least it had a reasonable chance.

We’re off to Malaysia next, in just a week’s time. The circuit has many straights, which may make the Mercedes a potential pole-sitter. Very early forecasts show rain is a marginal possibility. Let’s hope the race weekend is even more exciting, and profitable too.

Morris Dancer

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Australia: pre-race

Well, qualifying was bloody exciting. I slept in and so missed Q1, but did catch that Raikkonen failed to escape to Q2. This was because he made a mistake and then missed the boat to do another flying lap. As expected, HRT and Marussia filled most of the Q1 slots, but Caterham was less competitive than expected, with neither driving making Q2.

The second session was no less exciting, with Alonso doing a decent lap and the embarking on an off-road excursion to a gravel trap, which ended his qualifying. Despite this, Massa beat no-one’s time in Q2 (and only starts ahead of Perez because the Mexican didn’t complete a competitive lap). Di Resta was somewhat disappointing in 15th, and Senna did well to get his Williams to 14th. Alonso starts 12th.

Hamilton absolutely blitzed his first flying lap, which was about 0.7s better than everyone else for most of the session. He was unable to improve, and didn’t need to, nabbing a handy pole just ahead of Button. Shock of the day was Grosjean in the Lotus getting 3rd, which does make me wonder where Raikkonen could’ve been but for his mistake and how he’ll do in the race. Schumacher was surprisingly better than Rosberg, with the elder German 4th and his young apprentice 7th. Schumacher was also 0.3s ahead of Webber, who beat Vettel down to 6th. Maldonado did excellent work to get Williams to 8th, and Hulkenberg’s 9th was impressive, especially given it’s his first qualifying since that spectacular pole in Interlagos. Ricciardo rounds out the top 10.

A few musings on qualifying. Firstly, it’s very tight. There’s a tenth between the McLarens, suggesting they’ve somehow made a car that suits ragged Hamilton and smooth Button. Grosjean and Schumacher are separated by less than a tenth, and Webber, Vettel and Rosberg by less than four one-hundredths. Hedged bets in qualifying seem wise, given that.

Red Bull aren’t that quick. Well, not as quick as many expected them to be or as quick as they have been for the last two years. The real concern for them must be if they still have a qualifying premium (last year they were super in qualifying but the gap to the rest narrowed in race pace). If that’s the case they may go backwards once the lights go out.

McLaren are top dogs. It was expected they’d be there more or less, but the pace of the Mercedes and Lotus is a slight surprise. Ferrari’s car seems to be an absolute dog. Alonso might have made Q3 had he not crashed out, but Massa is well down. His days, and Domenicali’s, may well be numbered.

The Williams revival is quite a surprise, but nice to see. Sauber seemed to struggle, in 13th and 16th.

Just the one tip. I do tend to start seasons poorly, and we don’t know about reliability etc, but here it is: Schumacher for a podium, 3.4. No hedging. He tends to have monster starts, he’s been racing well, the car’s fast and the Mercedes DRS may be the best of the bunch for overtaking. Against that is that he starts on the dirty side of the track, but it’s more than 2/1 for him to make up one place.

The race starts at 6am tomorrow. I’ll try to remember to wake up for the start this time.

Morris Dancer

Friday, 16 March 2012

Australia: pre-qualifying

First of all, thanks to those who commented on the last article. As well as being nice to read some of the comments also suggested some interesting possibilities I hadn’t considered before. (NB I don’t enable comment moderation, I think it happens automatically after a certain length of time).

Nigel pointed out I’d forgotten to comment on the probably tighter-than-last-year qualifying situation. I think he’s absolutely right, not just regarding Q3, but even to escape Q1.

Marussia and HRT will probably stack up 4/7 of the Q1 slots, but there may well be a ferocious battle between Caterham, Williams and maybe others to escape the ignominy of being out in the first qualifying session.

However, it seems likely that the battle to reach Q3 will be titanic. We’ve got (if speculation is right) two top teams in Red Bull and McLaren, and none of the four drivers are rubbish. So, that leaves six slots for The Rest. Ferrari is reputed to be off the pace, Lotus and Mercedes have put in good efforts and Force India have two very talented young drivers. The lower half of the top 10 on the grid will, I think, be highly variable throughout the season and may present some opportunities.

Incidentally, there’s also the possibility of intra-team divergence. Schumacher has improved markedly regarding racing, but he’s still qualifying a league below Rosberg. However, he (Schumacher) starts fantastically, and in the latter half of 2011 was the better driver (in the race). Rosberg tends to get the most out of the car in qualifying, but this also means it’s hard for him to make up ground in the race.

We’ll have to see if this is proven true, but the Lotus and Ferrari are reckoned to be very good over a few laps, but to have high degradation (and the prancing horse is inconsistent). So, they may qualify well but then be handicapped in the race (this would also benefit Mercedes, which appears to have solved its rear tyre-shredding problem, at last).

The tyres are softer than last year (the supersoft remains the same and 2011’s medium is 2012’s hard). This may benefit Button and Vettel, and harm Webber, who found it took him a while to get to grips with the Pirellis last year.

No tip for qualifying in Australia. It’s a brand new season, and due to the timezone difference P3 is at about 3am UK time. However, I’ll run through P1 and P2.

Due to insomnia I actually listened to most of P1 and caught the back end of P2. Here’s a summary of who was where:

P1 – Button and Hamilton locked out the top places for McLaren. Almost half a second down the road was Schumacher, followed by Alonso, Webber and Rosberg. 7th was taken by Ricciardo, then came Maldonado, Raikkonen and Kobayashi.

P2 – Schumacher got the top slot, which isn’t bad for a man competing in his 932nd Grand Prix. He beat the talented whippersnapper Hulkenberg into 2nd, then came Perez, Alonso and Kobayashi. Di Resta was 6th, followed by Massa, Kovalainen, Rosberg and Vettel.

The impression I got was that the Mercedes could be good. However, P1 started off pretty damp (though there was good dry running at the end). Ferrari seems to be in trouble. Alonso was going hell for leather, and I think that was because he had to rather than because he wanted to. McLaren’s still looking good, and Vettel was 11th and 10th, which is unexpected. I don’t think that’s a pace issue, and Alguesuari (expert chap on R5 now) reckoned Red Bull was testing a new thingummyjig.

Remember, generally speaking P1 is about getting a feel for the initial setup, P2’s about getting the long run, high-fuel pace right and P3 is for final race and qualifying setup and qualifying simulation.

So, practice is fuzzy as ever, but does lend a little more credence to the consensus that Ferrari have buggered up big time, and McLaren and Red Bull are still top dogs. It also slightly suggests that Mercedes might be closer to the top two than Ferrari and Lotus.

However, Alguesuari made the interesting point that Mercedes’ excellent DRS (now married to a lovely F-duct-in-all-but-name) would really help in qualifying (available for 56% of the lap: but that, relatively, Mercedes would be slower in the race because it would be able to use the DRS far less and would lose more pace (relative to other teams) because of this.

Alguesuari also suggested that the best place to overtake is turn 3, at the end of the second DRS zone, which means that more overtaking may well be easier and that a super DRS could help a lot with that.

Unless I see something to change my mind I’m going to stick with my 2011 approach of taking P3 and its qualifying simulation as the best guide to qualifying. So, as I won’t be listening to that live and it’s a new season, I won’t be offering a qualifying tip.

The most interesting parts of qualifying will be as follows:

Will Schumacher be able to match Rosberg? In the last two years he’s been a mile behind in qualifying but looked good in practice.

Will Mercedes be able to upset the McLaren-Red Bull dominance?

How well or badly will Ferrari do?

Most importantly, who’ll get pole? A Hamilton-Webber-Vettel battle could be on the cards.

For the race, my intention is to offer 1-2 tips, but obviously that depends on odds available and how the grid lines up.

Morris Dancer

Sunday, 4 March 2012

2012 season preview

So, the testing is over, the races await, and soon the season will be underway.

Testing now is notoriously hard to analyse. That may sound like an excuse, but there are good reasons why it is not. Firstly, in 2009 we still had refuelling. This meant fuel tanks were much smaller and significantly diminished the fuel effect (the variation in lap times due to high or low levels of fuel). It was because of this that I was able to tell that there was an off-chance the Brawn team might do ok.

Secondly, the tyres. These are highly variable and degrade swiftly, making a comparison tricky. (Incidentally, the tyres this time around, excepting the supersoft, are softer compared to last year’s. This may aid Vettel and Button and prove displeasing to Webber and Mercedes).

Thirdly, track conditions. Temperature, precipitation, and time of day all affect how things run.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the teams deliberately try not to show their real pace. This was confirmed by Ferrari before testing even began.

So, what did we learn from testing?

Well, nothing definitive. The first practice sessions at Oz will provide more useful info, likewise qualifying and the race. However, we shouldn’t even take that as gospel, as each circuit is different and the drivers will be doing a race for real, for the first time, on the new tyres.

However, there are one or two interesting features. Firstly, the W-duct. This is a swanky front wing created by Mercedes, designed to maximise the advantage, aerodynamically, in both corners and on the straights. Whether it’ll work well we can’t be sure, and if it does it’ll certainly be copied.

Then we have the Red Bull letterbox, which is a little gap on the nose at the steeped bit. The team have said this is to help cool the driver, but many suspect it may (also) be there to channel air to aerodynamically handy bits at the rear, enhancing grip. As the letterbox seems to always be open, it wouldn’t, I think, fall foul of the regulations banning the driver-controlled F-duct.

A brief word on noses: McLaren reckon there’s not much different between its pretty nose and the kinked one used by everyone else, save Marussia. Nevertheless, it is striking that just two teams went for the prettier option.

There’s been a lot of musing about the state of play. For what it’s worth (and don’t take it too seriously) here are my impressions, guided by the odd inside line, keeping up to date with the news and gut instinct.

McLaren and Red Bull seem to be top dogs. It’s possible that McLaren will come out on top, which could prompt an intriguing Button-Hamilton-Vettel three way fight for the title.

Ferrari may be in deep trouble. According to their own technical director, Pat Fry, they won’t even be able to compete for a podium at the first Grand Prix ( This suggests they believe they’re clearly third, or perhaps even worse. A Ferrari-Lotus-Mercedes battle for third spot seems possible.

However, a word of caution. McLaren had a dire pre-season test in 2011, but in-season their car was either fastest or second only to Red Bull.

Lotus and Mercedes seem to be pretty impressive. Whether they can leapfrog Ferrari is something we’ll find out in Oz. It appears that the Silver Arrows have resolved their serious rear tyre destroying problem, but we’ll only find out for sure over a race distance.

Further down the field, Sauber seems more or less solid and Force India seem to be in reasonable nick. Not sure about Williams. Caterham must look to score a point or two pretty regularly. HRT and Marussia (formerly Virgin) both failed to do any pre-season testing with their 2012 car, and it’s increasingly difficult to see the point of either team.

Unfortunately, there’s a new and very unwelcome challenge to betting on F1 this year, namely the Judas Iscariot approach to coverage adopted by the BBC. In practical terms, this means those without Sky will either have to find an alternative means of seeing the action or will miss half the qualifying sessions and half the races. (Excitingly you can watch highlights 14 hours or so later. Ooh).

I’m not sure if this is accurate, but I’ll post it anyway. On the comments responding to a blog written by one of the BBC’s condescending F1 editorial chumps one chap put up the details of the BBC’s coverage:

Australia - Highlights, Q 1pm/75minutes, Race 2pm/2 hours
Malaysia - Highlights Q 1pm/75 minutes, Race 2pm/2 hours
China - Live Q 6am/2.5 hours, Race 7am/3h15mins
Bahrain - Highlights Q 5.30pm/75 minutes, Race 5.30pm/90mins
Spain - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
Monaco - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h10mins
Canada - Highlights - 10.30pm/75 minutes, Race 11.30pm/2 hours
Europe - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
Britain - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
Germany - Highlights Q 6pm/75 minutes, Race 6pm/90mins
Hungary - Highlights Q 6pm/75 minutes, Race 5.30pm/90mins
Belgium - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
Italy - Highlights Q 5.30pm/75 minutes, Race 5.30pm/90mins
Singapore - Live Q 12.10pm/2h20m Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
Japan - Highlights, Q 1pm/75minutes, Race 2pm/2 hours
Korea - Live, Q 5am/2h15m, Race 6am/3h15m
India - Highlights, Q 1pm/75minutes, Race 5.30pm/90 minutes
Abu Dhabi - Live Q 12.10pm/2h05m, Race 12.10pm/3h05mins
USA - Highlights - 10.30pm/75 minutes, Race 10.30pm/2 hours
Brazil - Live, Q 3pm/2h15m, Race 3pm/3h15m

I’m hoping that listening to P3 on the radio will be as much use, effectively, as watching it online, and hopefully qualifying bets won’t be detrimentally affected. I’ll try the same for qualifying when it’s early and see if I can watch online if it’s on a bit later. I do intend to tip shortly after P3 for qualifying and a couple of hours after qualifying for the race, as per last year, but it’s impossible to say whether this’ll be adversely affected by the lack of coverage. If I do find a decent online option (I’m going to try RTL) then I’ll probably only watch the BBC for races that are live and early (China and Korea).

There was an interesting mini-interview with Vettel on the BBC's angry wasps website. The lack of rear grip, due to no blown diffuser, reduces speeds in the corners (which is obvious), but what I hadn't considered was that this also means that it takes a bit longer to get tyres up to temperature and probably decreases degradation (this'll probably be offset or mitigated somewhat by the decreased life expectancy tyres now have).

So, for qualifying this may well mean that it's flying lap 2 or 3 that the tyre is in best shape for, and for the race it may mean that an undercut strategy (pitting early to benefit from a better tyre to get faster times and leapfrog the person ahead when they stop) may not be so simple, as the person who does not pit first could be faster on the outlap (accounting for the pitstop), increasing the gap and giving them breathing room for an immediate riposte.

Instead of one big article per race weekend I’m going back to a pre-qualifying, pre-race and post-race analysis approach. For the first race, Australia, I’ll probably not bet on qualifying, as P3 takes place at an ungodly hour, and offer 1-2 tips for the race itself. Australia race day is the 18th.

Morris Dancer