Vettel: breaking free after the break!

Sebastian Vettel hogged the headlines by hijacking the second half of the F1 season, but there were sub-plots too, intriguing and bizarre, that added up to make 2013 a very fascinating season, writes G. Raghunath.

Considering the way the first half of the 2013 Formula One World Championship panned out, no one could fault the experts for being miserably off the mark. Going into the break, the lead established by Sebastian Vettel (172 points) of Red Bull over second-placed Kimi Raikkonen (134) of Lotus was a mere 38 points. Also in this heady mix was Fernando Alonso (133 points) of Ferrari. But post summer break, Vettel and Co. (read chief designer Adrian Newey) turned the championship on its head with one of the most outstanding performances in the history of the sport in recent times, perhaps comparable to only the blistering runs of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in 2000 and 2004.

The 26-year-old German sealed his fourth successive world title with three races remaining in the calendar to become the youngest quadruple World champion. With 13 victories, he equalled countryman Michael Schumacher’s record in 2004 for most wins in a season. The Red Bull driver also set the record for most successive wins in a single season with nine straight victories, beginning with the Belgium Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, riding on its No. 1 driver’s superb performance, Red Bull won its fourth consecutive Constructors’ Championship and equalled McLaren’s run from 1988 to 1991.

The season, though, wasn’t solely about the exploits of Vettel and Red Bull. There were sub-plots too, intriguing and bizarre, that added up to make 2013 a very fascinating season.

Row over Pirelli

A series of embarrassing tyre blowouts at Silverstone in June almost led to the cancellation of the British Grand Prix. As the track temperatures soared, Felipe Massa and Alonso (Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso), Sergio Perez (McLaren) and Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) suffered massive punctures. The tyre failure proved egregious in the case of Hamilton, as it robbed him of a potential victory in front of his home crowd. Starting from pole position, the Mercedes driver was leading the race when his left rear tyre exploded, the rubber delaminating from the core framework.

Pirelli’s first reaction was to go into a denial mode. It attributed the problem to ‘tyre swapping’ (mounting right side tyres to the left and vice versa) by the teams pushing for performance boost.

Consequently, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, apprehensive about the safety of the drivers, called for a boycott of the next race in Nurburgring. Pirelli relented and consented to strengthen the tyres ahead of the German Grand Prix and for the race in Hungary two weeks later, the tyre manufacturer decided to pull out the 2012 model from its vault.

Testing by stealth

Pirelli’s covert testing of its new-generation tyres — which were to be introduced after the Canadian Grand Prix — in conjunction with Mercedes raged like a hurricane in Monte Carlo during the Monaco Grand Prix. Both groups in the eye of the storm claimed the testing was ‘legal’ as they had obtained permission from the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), but remained silent on why they had used the 2013 car, which infringed upon the Formula One Sporting Rules. The other teams, led by Ferrari, protested vehemently, forcing the FIA to set up an international tribunal to examine the issue.

Following the hearing in Paris, both Mercedes and Pirelli were reprimanded ‘for breaking the rules on testing’. The tribunal also ordered Mercedes to miss the young drivers’ test in Silverstone in July. But crucial questions, such as why the test was conducted in camera, why the data procured from the test weren’t shared with the other teams, and did Mercedes use the 2013 car to gain competitive advantage, went unanswered.

Multi-21 and team orders

The debate over team orders and whether they were against the spirit of the sport polarised the Formula One circuit at the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Vettel, clocking speeds in excess of his team-mate Mark Webber, sought to overtake the Australian, but the Red Bull principal, Christian Horner, refused and snarled over the radio, “Multi-21”, meaning the No. 2 driver (Webber) will stay ahead and the No. 1 driver (Vettel) will follow him. The German, however, refused to hold position and passed Webber with nearly 13 laps to go in the race. The move fetched Vettel his 27th career victory but exacerbated the already fractious relationship between the two Red Bull drivers.

Ross Brawn too had to deal with a similar situation as Nico Rosberg, running fourth, wanted to pass team-mate Hamilton. But the Mercedes boss refused and Rosberg drove to the finish line behind Hamilton.

Moving on

Webber quitting Grand Prix racing at the end of the season (he will be competing in the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2014 with Porsche) spelt finis to one of the strongest associations in Formula One. Though Webber and Vettel have always had a tempestuous relationship in the five years they were together at Red Bull, few would disagree that their rivalry, in fact, helped the Milton Keynes-based team scale the heights it had between 2009 and 2013.

McLaren’s fall

The season marked the Woking-based outfit’s worst performance in 33 years. McLaren finished fourth in the Constructors’ Championship and failed to get on the podium even once. The team should have done better than that in its 50th anniversary year.

Pointless, after all

The decision by the FIA to award double points for the final Grand Prix of each season seemed out of place. With the top teams taking pot shots at the decree, Formula One’s chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, said the rule would be put to vote at the meeting of the Strategy Group in January.

Scaling down engine power

Superannuating the 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8 and ushering in the 1.6-litre V6 turbo engine is the most significant of the technical changes coming into force in 2014.

The new power plant, revving to a maximum of 15000 rpm, packs 600 BHP. The driver will also be able to draw additional power from the Energy Recovery Systems.

The new engine presents a big challenge to the teams next season. And many, including the team principals, are of the view that it could change the pecking order in 2014.

Tailpiece

“Just spun at full speed 320km/h on Bahrain straight because my tyre blew up without warning. Thanks to that need to get some toilet paper now,” tweeted Nico Rosberg after the terrifying blowout on the final day of the three-day private testing by Pirelli at Sakhir in Bahrain. The Italian tyre manufacturer, which managed to persuade the German to delete the post, later clarified that the tyres used in Rosberg’s car were “prototype which will not be proposed again.”

One is not sure though if we have heard the last of the Pirelli problem.