At this point we’re 10 races into the 19 race season, and the time has arrived for my traditional mid-season review of the racing. This is slightly later than usual, to allow the Young Driver (New Tyre) Test to take place first.
Early on the season looked extremely finely balanced, with Lotus and Ferrari easier on tyres but Red Bull faster in qualifying. Unfortunately a combination of bad luck/poor races for the first two teams and (excepting Silverstone) a very reliable performance from Vettel/Red Bull has meant that the season’s now in danger of being another Red Bull procession.
Mercedes began the season with good qualifying pace but eating tyres, seemed to get on top of the tyre wear, largely, to compete at the sharp end in the races, but appear to have been hit hard by the new ban on swapping rear tyres. It’s worth also saying that Force India’s performance in Germany was below par for what has otherwise been a very good season for them.
The ban on Mercedes for the Young Driver/New Tyre Test will hit them harder than they would’ve imagined when it was handed down, and I suspect any pretensions towards contesting the title have now disappeared. However, at slower circuits, such as Singapore, they may be able to have moments of success.
McLaren, Sauber and Williams are all having dodgy seasons, in very different ways. McLaren and Williams have simply designed cars that aren’t fast enough. The switch for McLaren to focus on the 2014 car is the right decision and will hopefully pay dividends next year. In addition, the low pressure on Perez given the car isn’t good enough may be a blessing in disguise and enable him to get to know the team without the pressure to win/score podiums every race.
It’s sad to see Williams tumble from a pretty good season last year (they would’ve scored far more points if Senna were fast or Maldonado reliable) to a shocker in 2013. Sauber seems to have significant money troubles, with slow payments to Hulkenberg and no title sponsor, though the team is working on that. In addition, their car’s a bit of a dog and Hulkenberg’s reportedly keen to leave.
Toro Rosso are having a pretty good season. Ricciardo’s qualified sixth in a couple of consecutive races, which is impressive.
Right now Mercedes and Red Bull are almost even on qualifying pace, though the Silver Arrows probably just have the edge. Judging by Germany, I’d say Red Bull and Lotus are fastest in the race, with Ferrari close behind and Mercedes hampered by very poor tyre wear.
The Young Driver Test ran from 17-19 July. All information regarding the new tyres was made available to all teams, including Mercedes (although as cars use tyres differently this still counts as a sizeable handicap for the team).
Some teams changed their minds about having race drivers do the testing because race drivers were subject to more constraints than test drivers. Vettel did test, Raikkonen did not.
It sounds like the new tyres will make little difference, if Vettel is to be believed: http://www.espn.co.uk/redbull/motorsport/story/117211.html
That view is also backed up by Hulkenberg: http://www.formula1.com/news/headlines/2013/7/14816.html
If that’s the case then the biggest difference with the tyres could be the ban on swapping rear tyres. Germany’s the only race we really have for a comparable pecking order, which had Red Bull and Lotus close on race pace (perhaps Lotus a shade faster) and Red Bull and Mercedes again vying for pole. McLaren, probably due to developments on the car, have improved, and Force India seemed to have gone backwards quite a bit.
On tyres: Pirelli have changed their Hungary tyres (medium-hard previously) to soft-medium, due to the change in construction. If it’s hot, which is entirely possible, that should play into the hands of Lotus/Ferrari. However, the circuit’s hard to overtake on, so good qualifying is critical (although tyre degradation should make it possible to make some progress during pit stops).
Looking to next year briefly (I’m mentioning it now because it’s a little-known but critical rule change): in 2014 gear ratios will have to be set for the entire year (hat tip to Will Tyson of https://twitter.com/theWPTformula for raising this). Now, that sounds rather dry, but it’s actually crucial.
My knowledge of gear ratios is slightly ropey, but here’s the gist: if you have short gears then on the straights you have a lower top speed. But, through the corners you’ll be faster. Red Bull is a typical short gear team, preferring to optimise overall lap time, qualify near the sharp end and then race off into the sunset before DRS comes into effect (NB DRS flap size will be increased from 50mm to 65mm next year) so lower straight line speed doesn’t compromise them and allow them to be passed on the straights.
Now, think of Monaco or Singapore and then, say, Monza or Montreal. The circuits are entirely different. The first two are tight, slow circuits with barely a straight between them. Monza and Montreal are basically straights connected by little kinks masquerading as corners. One set of gear ratios for every circuit will mean there isn’t a set pecking order. It also means that midfield teams could optimise one way or the other so that they’ll be dire at 80% of circuits but very competitive at the other 20%. This could make races very variable regarding frontrunners and, hopefully, open up significant betting opportunities before first practice.