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HindustanTimes Sun,21 Sep 2014
Figure that one out!
Joe Saward
March 26, 2012
First Published: 23:33 IST(26/3/2012)
Last Updated: 00:03 IST(27/3/2012)
Felipe Massa (right) was among the drivers who were unable to effectively use their tyres. Getty

The Malaysian Grand Prix was a race that was hard to explain. There were the complications of rain and a red flag and then strange things happened and, but for youthful exuberance, Sergio Perez would have won for Sauber. The youngster may not have won the race, but he has very publicly staked his claim to the Ferrari seat that will be available alongside Fernando Alonso next year. And perhaps even later this year.  Ferrari has been very patient with Felipe Massa for the last couple of years, but one cannot help but think that more will be achieved with another driver in the second car. And a Massa-Perez swap might end up being best for all concerned.

I bumped into Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali in Dubai on the way home and he happily admitted that Fernando Alonso's win in Sepang probably involved divine intervention, with everything falling Ferrari's favour.

It obviously helped to have Fernando Alonso to translate the twists and turns of Fate into a result that no gambler would have considered possible. What one can say with great certainty is that the Spaniard did nothing wrong and took advantage of the situation as others fell by the wayside.

Focus on the tyres
But how does one explain the extraordinary performance of Sergio Perez's Sauber, or the inability of the McLaren's to get heat into their tyres? Or how Narain Karthikeyan happened to be running 10th at one point?

When all was said and done, the answer lies in the questions. Tyres. Formula 1 is a complicated world with exotic machines that have been endlessly shaped and toned in wind tunnels, but when you boil it all down a race is won or lost with tyres. The four points of contact with the road dictate what a driver can or cannot do with his car and that depends on whether or not the driver can get sufficient temperature into the tyres to bring them up to their optimal operating levels. If that happens then the driver is off and away. If he struggles to find that, the tyres slide around too much and degrade more quickly. I have spent 25 years trying to get someone who can explain to me how rubber works, but it is the preserve of wild-haired research scientists who start talking about molecules and hopelessly fail to explain what makes one black, round rubber thing different from another.

It is not just the car, as we saw at the weekend with Ferrari. Fernando Alonso made his car sing along at speed, but team-mate Felipe Massa could not do the same because, he thinks, his style of driving does not work with the tyres. Ferrari engineers have looked at every element of his driving and they agree that he is not doing anything differently to the Felipe Massa of old, but the tyres just will not work.

Who does it best
In some cases, one could see drivers who had the car working with one set of tyres, but got nowhere with another. Thus some of the ebb and flow of the race can be explained. There are some cars that clearly work well on the tyres over longer runs, notably the Sauber, the Williams and the Toro Rosso; and others that are good for short blasts, such as the Mercedes, which has thus far proved to be disastrous in the races.  The skill in F1 is not just to build the best possible car, but rather to make the car work in all circumstances, or at least get a better average over a season than the opposition. Right now, McLaren has shown itself to be best at doing this and leads the World Championship comfortably.

Ferrari is effectively a one man band at the moment and so is 20 points in arrears already, while Red Bull is between them and Sauber tantalisingly close to Ferrari. Lotus has been the story of one man  as well, as Romain Grosjean has been off early in both races to date. Mercedes is ninth with only one point.

As I write this column in the Dubai International Airport, a gaggle of Mercedes F1 engineers are sitting nearby, trying to work it all out…

The author has attended every Grand Prix for last 25 years


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