In comparison with the last two Grand Prix weekends, there is a lot of data to analyse from the Friday running. The intelligentF1 model has been applied to the practice runs which are long enough to get an idea of the pace of the cars. One thing stands out. It is clear that there is no concern with tyre wear given the choices of Pirelli (soft and hard tyres) at this circuit. Therefore, as the hard tyre appears to be significantly slower (although it is not clear how much without inside information), it is likely that the race strategies will be much like they were at the Nurburgring, with a late stop for the hard tyres. There is some evidence that the pace at the end of the stints is slightly faster than at the beginning, suggesting that the tyre wear is very low. The pace of the stints is usually quite constant until the tyres begin to go off. This will make two stops faster than a three stop strategy – so look for increasing pace from the cars towards the end of the first stint (say lap 15-20), and if the pace continues to increase then more cars may decide to stay out.
The pace of the long runs from the first six teams (except Webber, Hamilton, Alonso and the Williams who did not do a useful run for analysis) is shown in the chart below. The intelligentF1 model fits are shown in the dashed lines.
The pace from these cars is interesting. The headline times from the session seemed to suggest that McLaren were significantly behind Ferrari and Red Bull, and the Autosport analysis suggests that Button’s pace was 0.7s behind Vettel. In reality, Vettel and Button did about three useful laps each, with Vettel producing one lap that was faster. The consistent ‘race’ laps were only 0.2s different in pace. Massa was next up, a further 0.3s behind. The times here suggest that none of the three leading teams was running a full fuel load as Rosberg’s Mercedes is about 2.2s off the pace, and 0.8s behind Schumacher. Assuming that Schumacher is on a similar fuel load to the front runners, and Rosberg is on a full fuel load, this suggests that the leading cars are running with about 10 laps less fuel on board – which would make a very short first stint. More likely is to run with about 15 laps less fuel, which should give a pace advantage of about 1.2s – leaving Mercedes about 1s shy of the ultimate pace, and Rosberg faster than Schumacher. The Renaults do not show very consistent pace, but are a little behind the Mercedes (Petrov at 1.5s, Senna at 1.8s).
The remaining cars (except Buemi, the HRTs and Virgins) are shown on the chart below.
The midfield again looks to be very close. The Saubers are either fast, or running some less fuel than the other teams. Kobayashi is only 1s off the pace of Vettel, which is much less than would be anticipated, and Perez is 1.8s down, which is still very competitive. The pace difference between the Saubers is about the same as between the Mercedes – but it woudl take a brave man to suggest that they are the 0.4s quicker that this could suggest. However, if the slower Sauber were on the same fuel load as the faster Mercedes, this puts the Swiss cars only 0.4s behind the German cars. The two Force Indias drivers were again equally matched at 2.5s off the pace, which is 0.7s down on Perez. This would put them at the back of the midfield – but they may have been running more fuel than the competition. If they are full, then being only 0.3s down on Rosberg would be strong pace – although the last two Grand Prix weekends have not suggested that they usually run on full tanks in the long runs. There may be some cause for concern at the home team.
The Toro Rosso of Alguersuari again produced the most consistent stint of the Friday running, and at 2s of the pace, they seem to be in the mix. As a team that do tend to run heavy in the Friday long runs, they could be worth watching again. Lotus again look quite close to the midfield, with Kovalainen 2.5s down (same as Force India) and Trulli 3s off the pace. The green cars ran a little lighter than most of the opposition in practice in Japan, so they might not be right with the midfield, but they are likely to be close – as they have been in the last few races.
So, were I a betting man, I would be looking towards a Nurburgring type three way battle at the front, with Sauber and Toro Rosso being the most likely to challenge the Mercedes and Renault cars for the lower end of the points. We’ll see if any more light is shed on matters tomorrow – when we should get a better idea of the true pace of the cars.