Riding roughshod over monopoly

In the Malaysian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso was lucky on two counts. The first time Sergio Perez came close to overhauling the Spaniard, he had instructions from his team to go easy on the chase. Sauber was anxious about Perez ruining his chance of taking second place — and with it 18 points — in his over-enthusiasm to hunt the Ferrari driver down. Perez, who was quicker by nearly three seconds a lap at that stage, had another tilt at Alonso and seemed capable of beating the two-time world champion to the finish but ran a wee bit wide, on to the kerb, which put paid to his hopes of a first Grand Prix victory.-AP

Apart from struggling to come to terms with the blown diffuser ban, F1 teams have largely laboured through the first four races this year, trying to master the art of handling the latest generation of Pirelli tyres that have shown a tendency to be highly inconsistent and abrade quickly. Working the tyres to the right temperature has also been a big headache for the drivers this year. Over to G. Raghunath.

When Michael Schumacher's domination between 2000 and 2004 threatened to plunge Formula One into a monocratic turmoil, the FIA (Federation International de l'Automobile) amended a crucial technical rule pertaining to tyre changes that would turn the sport on its head. In 2005, the sport's governing body issued a ban on tyre changes during the race, which in effect meant that the tyre suppliers — Bridgestone and Michelin — had to provide a sturdier and far more reliable compound than what was used the previous year for cars to last the entire Grand Prix.

The tyres that Ferrari rode on subsequently simply didn't match up to the Michelin variety used by the Prancing Horse's rivals such as Renault and McLaren. While Schumacher and Co. were tied down by Bridgestone's ‘singular effort', their adversaries profited from Michelin's ‘group effort'. In other words, while Bridgestone secured data on tyre development only from Ferrari, Michelin benefited from inputs provided by several teams. In short, Bridgestone failed to live up to the demands which blunted Ferrari's challenge in the 2005 World Championship as both Schumacher, in pursuit of a sixth successive world title and eighth overall, and team-mate Rubens Barrichello were woefully off the pace.

The season also saw the German, holder of a record number of world titles, abdicate the throne in favour of the young but tough as nails Renault driver, Fernando Alonso of Spain.

Some years later, the FIA still seems loath to giving any driver or team the leeway to launch such a dominant run. It has already doused any hopes that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing might have had of extending their excellent performances in the last two years to the current season by revising another technical rule. The ban on the use of the blown diffuser, a system that Red Bull perfected and put to tremendous use last season, seems to have rocked the team's confidence as it bids for its third successive world drivers' and world constructors' titles.

Though Vettel pulled off a victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix recently, his first in four races this season, the defending champion acknowledged that he and his team were quite ruffled. “It is so tight now and we are not feeling as confident as we used to feel,” he said. “I don't feel happy with where we are now.”

Apart from struggling to come to terms with the blown diffuser ban, teams have largely laboured through the first four races this year, trying to master the art of handling the latest generation of Pirelli tyres that have shown a tendency to be highly inconsistent and abrade quickly. Working the tyres to the right temperature has also been a big headache for the drivers this year.

Jenson Button of McLaren, who won the first Grand Prix of the season in Melbourne, Australia, remarked: “Last year, we knew the tyres had high degradation but we understood them. This year, I don't really know what to make of the tyres.”

Schumacher, who is yet to justify his comeback after having retired from the sport in 2006, was ruthless in his indictment of the Pirellis, saying the tyres were anything but appropriate for Formula One. He lamented that Formula One has been reduced to a “tyres-management contest” this year.

The new Pirellis, far less durable than the ones used last year, have in a way created a level-playing field this year. And one can't fault the Formula One buffs for getting all too excited about the mixture of results in the races so far. It's for the first time since 1983 that we are seeing four different winners in the first four Grands Prix, and it's a clear indication of things to come: the possibility of one single driver dominating the championship this season seems highly implausible. And lending credence to this view is the manner in which each of the four winners has taken the chequered flag.

In the Australian Grand Prix, both the McLaren drivers, Button and Lewis Hamilton, were staggered by the pace of their cars. However, the 2009 world champion was quite fortuitous to win in Melbourne despite running low on fuel. The McLaren boss, Martin Whitmarsh, revealed after the race that both Hamilton and Button's cars had fuel problems. “Frankly we didn't have enough fuel, so both drivers had to really control their pace to make it last,” he told The Guardian.

In the next race, the Malaysian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso was lucky on two counts. The first time Sergio Perez came close to overhauling the Spaniard, he had instructions from his team to go easy on the chase. Sauber was anxious about Perez ruining his chance of taking second place — and with it 18 points — in his over-enthusiasm to hunt the Ferrari driver down. Perez, who was quicker by nearly three seconds a lap at that stage, had another tilt at Alonso and seemed capable of beating the two-time world champion to the finish but ran a wee bit wide, on to the kerb, which put paid to his hopes of a first Grand Prix victory.

Nico Rosberg should thank Button for his maiden Grand Prix victory. In Shanghai, Button was the only one capable of wrecking the Mercedes driver's hold on the race, but when he came in for his final pit stop the McLaren driver was held up by a cross-threaded wheel nut. The delay thrust Button amidst a group of cars battling for the second place, while Rosberg thundered down to the finish unchallenged.

Similarly in the Bahrain Grand Prix, another ill-advised pit-stop strategy, this time by Lotus, prevented Kimi Raikkonen from mounting a serious challenge against Vettel. Why Lotus delayed in calling the Finn for his final pit-stop is a mystery. By the time he finally pitted, with his tyres bald and blistered, the former world champion had lost plenty of time.

Raikkonen had another good opportunity to overtake Vettel on lap No. 36, but he didn't use it as well as he should have. “I got one try on Sebastian, but I couldn't use it because I chose the wrong side and then my tyres dropped off and that was it,” he told BBC.

The three-week break before the season resumes in Barcelona (Spanish Grand Prix) on May 13 and the in-season testing at Mugello (Italy) are what the teams have been eagerly looking forward to. Though Button's take on the in-season testing is cynical (“Mugello session is pointless. I don't really think we will benefit because there aren't any massive updates to try.”), teams are expected to re-assemble in Barcelona armed with new set-ups and packages and, without doubt, fresh strategies.

Christian Horner, the chief of Red Bull Racing, told newsmen anxious to know about Vettel and his team's chances after the Bahrain Grand Prix, “It is going to be a very tight world championship. In races you can't win, you have to be consistent, taking the maximum out of them. And in the races that you can win, you need to deliver.”

Considering how the races have gone so far this year, it's tough to contest Horner's philosophy.