Yesterday’s Monaco Grand Prix is being hailed as a triumph for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes. But the reality is that it was a demonstration of how ridiculous the tyre situation has become in Formula One.
It’s always been difficult to overtake in Monaco. There’s simply not enough space. The track is too narrow to get alongside another car without the door being left open by the driver in front. So it was no surprise that Rosberg was able to win the race from pole position. He and Mercedes just had to make sure their pit stops were neat and tidy, so that he could come out of the pits in the lead every time. They managed to do so comfortably.
Rosberg won the race because he did not, at any stage of the race, push his tyres at all. He therefore ensured that he was on the same tyre strategy as his challengers, and that meant they all pitted at similar times and no-one had a chance to make up any time on the leader while running in clean air. He was there, blocking the road, slowing them all down, for the entire race. All through the field, in fact, the drivers were just looking after their tyres in an attempt to make as few pit stops as possible. They all knew that overtaking was all but impossible, which meant it would be better to be slow at the front than blisteringly fast in the middle of the pack after a pit stop.
An indication of the difficulty of overtaking was provided by Felipe Massa, who started 21st and had only made it up to 15th when he crashed out. Massa drives a Ferrari, one of the quickest cars in the field, but he spent a great deal of time stuck behind Esteban Gutierrez, who has yet to score a point this season in his Sauber.
This year’s F1 cars are fast. So fast, in fact, that Nico Rosberg’s pole position time in Monaco was over half a second faster than the lap record, set by Michael Schumacher in 2004 when Formula One cars still used V10 engines with no rev limits. Rosberg’s pole lap was just under half a second faster than the fastest time set in last year’s qualifying session (also by Michael Schumacher, although he did not start on pole due to a grid penalty). In the history of the Monaco Grand Prix, only in 2005, 2010 and 2011 have faster qualifying laps been recorded than that of Nico Rosberg at this year’s event. (It should be noted that lap records are always set in race conditions, and are therefore not affected by qualifying or practice times).
Considering the speed that is clearly available in this year’s F1 cars, the slow pace of the race itself was appalling. Nico Rosberg’s fastest lap in the race was over three seconds slower than his pole position time. But even that does not tell the full story. In the early part of the race, the leaders were lapping in around 1 minute 23 seconds. Compare that to the fastest lap in a GP2 race on the same weekend – Sergio Canamasas set a time of 1:22.169 in the 42-lap GP2 feature race – and Formula One starts to look a little bit pathetic.
GP2 is supposed to be a feeder series for Formula One. The GP2 cars, although very quick, are not designed to compete with Formula One cars. On most circuits, GP2 cars should be somewhere in the region of 10 seconds per lap slower than F1 cars. But at Monaco, that gap was substantially smaller, despite F1 cars having significantly more power, far greater braking ability and vastly superior aerodynamics.
All of the F1 drivers who finished Sunday’s race set personal best lap times that were quicker than Canamasas’s fastest GP2 time. But during the race, there were prolonged periods that could have seen a GP2 car compete with a Formula One car for the minor places. The mere existence of such a situation puts the lie to the idea that Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport. Formula One has instead become the world’s most expensive leisurely group Sunday drive.
Throughout the F1 race, the drivers were visibly and audibly taking it easy. Through the swimming pool section, which includes a very fast left-right chicane and then a slower right-left chicane, the drivers looked bored. They were simply not prepared to put any lateral load through their tyres. When there was onboard footage from any car coming out of a slow corner and putting the power down, it was obvious from the sound that the drivers were short-shifting and not using full throttle until they were going quickly enough to avoid spinning up the rear tyres which would cause them to overheat and fall apart. That’s not how racing cars are meant to be driven. What happened to the days when Schumacher and Alonso rang the necks of their cars around Monaco, brushing the walls with their tyres in the pursuit of victory? With Pirelli involved, those days are gone.
The slow pace of the race was not due to the limits of the cars or the drivers It was all down to the fragility of the tyres. It is entirely Pirelli’s fault that the 22 best drivers in the world, driving the 22 fastest cars in the world, around arguably the most iconic race track in the world, turned a Formula One race into 78 laps of slow procession.
After losing time to an electrical failure on day one and a hydraulic failure on day two of the first pre-season test in Jerez, Mercedes were back on track for day three. Nico Rosberg racked up a massive total of 148 laps, easily topping the distance charts for the day, in the W04 as the team continued to evaluate the new car.
148 laps of the Jerez circuit is a long, long way to drive in a Formula One car. Each lap is 4.428km long, which means Rosberg covered a little over 655km in a single day – over two full race distances. Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber was next on 110 laps, some way behind Rosberg.
Although Mercedes put a lot of mileage on the new car, which is essential at this stage of testing, their work is only just beginning. With only 12 days of pre-season testing in total, and two mostly lost to reliability issues, the team has to effectively squash its testing schedule into 10 days – not ideal for a team that wants to win races this season.
But Mercedes are clearly going about recovering from their early setbacks as well as they possibly can. After his running ended prematurely on day two, new Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton said, “If we can get 110 to 120 laps per day then that would be a good comeback.” The team has easily beaten that aim, and will no doubt look to do so again when testing resumes on day four.
The new Mercedes Formula One car – the W04 – will be unveiled formally tomorrow 4 February in Jerez, Spain, before taking to the track on Tuesday for the start of testing. In advance of the launch, Mercedes have come up with a novel way of generating interest in the new car. The Mercedes website is showing an image of a pit garage that started out closed on Saturday afternoon, but will open gradually as fans tweet the hashtag #F1W04Reveal.
There has been a flood of #F1W04Reveal tweets since the news of the early reveal broke on the team’s website yesterday. Hits at chrisonf1.com and mercamgf1-fans.com have spiked significantly as eager fans searched for photos of the car that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will drive in 2013.
The garage door is opening very slowly, but the car is becoming steadily more visible as time goes by. So far, it is clear that the stepped nose of 2012 has been covered, as seen on all of the launched cars except the Lotus E21. It also looks like the front wing has had undergone some serious revision.
Photos of the car will be available at chrisonf1.com after the formal launch tomorrow 4 February.