Monday, 9 September 2013

2013 Italian Grand Prix Review

The Italian Grand Prix was dominated by Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing, 2 weeks after doing so at the Belgian Grand Prix as well. These are the 2 races pinpointed in the season where Red Bull are expected to struggle given the high speed nature of the circuits, but instead a clear message has been sent to their rivals that they are sealing the championships as soon as possible. Though his points lead is not quite what it was in 2011, the trends are now the same with Vettel firmly taking the championship reigns and securing a 53 point lead over nearest rival Alonso, and seemingly invincible within the RB9 on whatever circuit and given any circumstance.

Fernando Alonso rescued second position today, as it seemed as though Mark Webber would have completed the Red Bull Racing 1-2 had he not been nursing his gearbox and transmission towards the end of the race. It was Alonso's move around the outside of Webber earlier in the race that allowed him to claim second position however, as he bravely clung onto the single cars width afforded to him by Webber entering the Variante della Roggia. From there he was forceful on the exit and wrestled the track position away from his close friend.

Felipe Massa made a very good account for himself throughout the weekend, though not as stunning as Nico Hulkenberg who finished behind him in 5th. Monza is a tough circuit to find time around, and a lot depends on the setup selected, including the Monza specific parts brought to the circuit. This is a strong indication to potential employers of the technical strengths of the drivers, in providing good feedback to the engineers and extracting the maximum performance from the car provided. Another good comparison of the setups employed by all of the teams can be seen looking at the speed trap readings from the qualifying session:

Daniel Ricciardo
Toro Rosso-Ferrari
340.4 km/h (211.5 mph)

Esteban Gutiérrez
Sauber-Ferrari
340.0 km/h (211.2 mph)

Jean-Éric Vergne
Toro Rosso-Ferrari
339.8 km/h (211.1 mph)

Max Chilton
Marussia-Cosworth
338.6 km/h (210.3 mph)

Jules Bianchi
Marussia-Cosworth
338.6 km/h (210.3 mph)

Felipe Massa
Ferrari
338.4 km/h (210.2 mph)

Fernando Alonso
Ferrari
338.3 km/h (210.2 mph)

Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes
338.1 km/h (210 mph)

Nico Rosberg
Mercedes
337.8 km/h (209.8 mph)

Kimi Räikkönen
Lotus-Renault
337.8 km/h (209.8 mph)

Romain Grosjean
Lotus-Renault
337.1 km/h (209.4 mph)

Pastor Maldonado
Williams-Renault
336.8 km/h (209.2 mph)

Valtteri Bottas
Williams-Renault
336.4 km/h (209 mph)

Mark Webber
Red Bull-Renault
336.3 km/h (208.9 mph)

Sebastian Vettel
Red Bull-Renault
336.1 km/h (208.8 mph)

Nico Hülkenberg
Sauber-Ferrari
335.7 km/h (208.5 mph)

Jenson Button
McLaren-Mercedes
331.8 km/h (206.1 mph)

Sergio Pérez
McLaren-Mercedes
331.6 km/h (206 mph)

Giedo van der Garde
Caterham-Renault
330.1 km/h (205.1 mph)

Charles Pic
Caterham-Renault
329.8 km/h (204.9 mph)

Adrian Sutil
Force India-Mercedes
327.2 km/h (203.3 mph)

Paul di Resta
Force India-Mercedes
326.8 km/h (203 mph)

All of the teams are paired throughout the table, with some teams clearly seeking a higher top speed to compensate lack of confidence in the corners. The only exception though is the Sauber drivers, appearing to run with different gear ratios and / or aerodynamic settings, allowing Esteban Gutierrez to run 4.3km/h faster. Overall it is clear that although the teams are in pursuit of absolute maximum straight line speed around Monza, there is still a balance to be made with the setup. Different teams made different strategies work so there is a case arguing for each. Given Red Bull's domination of the race, it is surprising to find them down in 14th and 15th in the speed trap, whilst the Marussia's saw little benefit in being 4th and 5th fastest along the straights.

Mercedes had a weekend to forget about, with Lewis Hamilton struggling to recover from a poor qualifying session and Nico Rosberg unable to extract the same performance as Hamilton during the race. We saw plenty of action from Lewis Hamilton passing people, and it was a shame that he was rewarded only 2 points for the entertainment. Rosberg finished in 6th, where he started the race. Lewis Hamilton started the year not even expecting wins, but he will still be disappointed that his championship aspirations are now over for 2013. Rosberg will hope to recapture some of his early season form ahead of 2014, and having won Monaco he may have a good chance at Singapore, much likened to the Monaco circuit.

Toro Rosso had a good weekend, and challenged once again to be best of the rest behind the top 4 teams and ahead of McLaren. Jean-Eric Vergne kept up with Daniel Ricciardo through the sessions until he suffered a transmission failure on lap 15. There were no team statements about potential driver line-ups, but Vergne is showing why he deserves a seat in F1 at the right time of the season. The superior straight line speed worked well in Toro Rosso's race trim, as they were able to keep the McLaren cars behind despite the use of DRS. Both Jenson Button and Sergio Perez looked set up to qualify higher and not rely on overtaking during the race. That or they were just not expecting to come across cars with such high straight line speed. They have challenged for the win in Italy every year since 2005, so it really highlights the difficulty McLaren have had in understanding the MP4-28.

Further back Lotus had a very disappointing race, and Kimi Raikkonen's run of consistency has dried up spectacularly. He is nearly 100 points adrift in 4th, a disappointment given they were the first team to understand the 2013 Pirelli compounds. With the change in the structure of the tyres they will struggle to add more wins this year,  and the focus from the media is now on who Raikkonen will drive for in 2014. Esteban Gutierrez has not been on the same pace as Nico Hulkenberg all year, but was even further off the pace in Monza. It could be argued that Hulkenberg drove beyond the limitations of the car, whilst Gutierrez matched expectations. It still remains though that in Hulkenberg, Sauber have a driver of talent who can be relied on to always at least get the best out of the car, if not more. Williams once again finished in a field of their own ahead of the Caterham / Marussia scrap and still not on pace with their midfield rivals. Saubers points haul means they need a spectacular result to move up to 8th in the constructors championship. Force India had an even worse Italian Grand Prix however, with a double retirement at either end of the race. The weekend was already going badly however, qualifying 14th and 16th, and also being the slowest cars through the speed trap meant overtaking would always be near impossible. The only positive is that McLaren failed to score any points as well and are still only 5 points ahead in the constructors championship.

Finally at the back of the field, and the Caterham drivers once again beat the Marussia pairing. In qualifying there was a gulf of 1.2 seconds between Giedo van der Garde and Valterri Bottas in 18th. The gap has been smaller in recent races, but the aero efficiency required around here penalises those teams whose downforce comes with higher levels of drag. Max Chilton was much closer to Jules Bianchi in Monza than through the rest of the season, and this was by far his best performance of his short career so far. Charles Pic would eventually triumph over van der Garde, but the Marussia's were close to utilising their straight line advantage at one stage of the race. We don't often see the battle for the last 4 positions, but at the point they were lapped by the leaders the 4 cars were all within the same camera shot.

Next up is Singapore in 2 weeks time, and by then Ferrari should have announced their driver line-up, revealing more of the shape of the 2014 F1 grid.