Strategy overtakes speed in China

MAKING PROGRESS  The thrilling race in China indicated that teams like McLaren and Ferrari are closing the gap on Formula One leaders Red Bull. AFP

Red Bull still have the quickest car in Formula One but Lewis Hamilton and McLaren chalked up a victory for strategy over speed in last week’s Chinese Grand Prix.
As teams flew back to their European factories on Monday after three races on the other side of the world, the strategists have plenty to analyse before the circus regroups in Turkey next month.

The 2011 version of Formula One — a new world of rapidly-degrading Pirelli tyres, Kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) and a driver-activated moveable rear wing (DRS) — has brought big changes and teams are still working out how best to respond.

In simple pecking order terms, champions and leaders Red Bull are still setting the pace with McLaren close behind and Mercedes showing signs of improvement with Ferrari and Renault also in the mix. "We are definitely the second quickest team," Hamilton said after ending world champion Sebastian Vettel's streak of four wins in a row for Red Bull including two at the end of last year.

"This weekend was done on strategy. My mind was set on strategy as I came here this weekend. For us... because we are not as fast as them on pure speed, it's about trying to outsmart them elsewhere," added the 2008 champion.

Despite team boss Martin Whitmarsh saying McLaren switched their drivers from a two-stop strategy to three after the first pitstops went wrong, Hamilton said it was always his intention to do three even if two looked more logical to some.

From the moment he first sat down with his engineers in Shanghai, Hamilton had already figured he would keep a set of fresh option tyres in reserve so that he could be more aggressive in the race.

Hamilton did one less run than team mate Jenson Button in qualifying, recognising Vettel's pace, and lined up third on the grid behind the Red Bull on pole and the other McLaren.

In the race, Red Bull kept Vettel on two stops and Hamilton passed Button before then hunting down the German, whose car's KERS was also playing up.

Behind him, Vettel's Australian team mate Mark Webber provided more food for thought as he carved his way from 18th place to third.

Heroic drive that it was, Webber was helped by a sequence of troubles a day before the race when car problems meant he missed most of final practice and then failed to get through the first hurdle of qualifying.

That left the Australian with three unused sets of the softer and quicker option tyres for the race, an advantage that had some pondering the possible strategic benefit of deliberately sacrificing grid position on Saturday for gain on Sunday.

"Maybe that is the best way to do it all the time, not even take part in qualifying and just go from there," Webber joked afterwards. The jury remains out on whether the changes designed to increase overtaking and improve the show are having the desired effect, with the danger that armchair fans may now find it all too confusing. But it is not only them.

"It's very strange at the moment in F1 with the races because you really don't know where you are going to be at the end," Button said after finishing fourth.

"At one point I thought that I had a chance of maybe catching Vettel and finishing second and at another point I thought I was going to be seventh. And it's really strange and quite difficult to get your head round it. It's easier for the guys on the pit wall but its still very difficult for the strategist."

While Sunday's race was generally recognised to be a thriller, the previous round of the season in Malaysia was a blur of pitstops and changes of position. The characteristics of the tyres, and the need to handle them with care, have drawn comparisons with endurance racing.

"It has changed mate, we know that," said Webber, suggesting there was a risk of the sport moving too far from what had gone before. "As a category it's changed a lot. In terms of the pace... there certainly is an element now of endurance mentality. People like to watch cars being driven on the limit so we should still try to get that balance right."

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