Reading the reports from the practice session at Sepang today you would think that a McLaren 1-2 is almost a certainty, with Red Bull filling the next two places. Mercedes would be on the front two rows, but would disappear in the race with tyre problems. Admittedly, I can see where the view comes from, but let’s see if we can back it up with some numbers. So the first thing, what is the expected pace of the first stint? Well, given last year’s leading pace of 104.2s (1m44.2s), and the fact that the cars were just over half a second slower in Melbourne this year (in comparison with 2011), this gives us a ballpark figure to look for of a pace in the high 104s as about what we would expect from a pace-setting car on full tanks.
Very kindly, the McLaren boys did stints (which were a little shorter than I would like) at paces of 104.8s and 104.9s on the medium tyres. I’ll take that to mean that they are running first stint fuel loads. So what about the cars which aren’t running full fuel loads? Well, the tyre life in Malaysia is not good – we are looking at cars beginning to struggle around the 10 lap mark on the medium tyres and getting towards 15 laps on the hard tyres. So for the first stint, we would be expecting something around 12-15 laps, which is equivalent (at about 0.09s per lap) to roughly a second per lap fuel load penalty.
So, to keep things simple, as we do not have enough data (or real idea of fuel loads) to do anything more complex, we can look at the long run times from the second practice session and try to guess (based on the pace shown in Melbourne) whether the time is representative of a full fuel load, or a second stint fuel load, and adjust our guess of the real underlying pace accordingly.
So, fitting the data, we get:
McLaren: We start here as their laptimes are consistent with what we would expect from our best guess for a full fuel load. So we make McLaren our default pace. As it happens Button was about 0.1s up on Hamilton, but Lewis’ stint was short so it’s a bit dangerous to draw conclusions.
Red Bull: Vettel’s pace was about 1s faster than Button, and Webber about 0.3s up. It is unlikely that Vettel is really going to be a full second per lap faster than the McLarens, so we guess that he is on a second stint fuel load, which makes the Red Bull race pace about the same as the McLaren. Webber’s stint is less easy to assess as it falls into a gap. I wonder if his tyres weren’t just a bit newer. Either way, it is supportive of strong race pace for the team.
Ferrari: Alonso’s stint that I’ve used was on the harder tyre. It is down on the McLaren’s, but adjusting to medium tyre pace (if the average 0.5s pace difference between the tyres as quoted by Pirelli applies to Ferrari), puts the red car 0.1s quicker than the silver car. If we guess that this is a second stint fule load, then we get Ferrari at 0.9s behind. Which would be about right in comparison with Australia. Massa was about 1.2s down on the medium tyre, so if he was on a full tank then it’s reasonably consistent.
Mercedes: Both Schumacher and Rosberg are 0.5s down on the McLarens. This is consistent across both cars from both teams. I can’t see any reason why this wouldn’t be reasonably representative. It suggests that the Mercedes tyre management is better, but that they do not have the race pace equal to their qualifying pace (but with the DRS tweak we must expect this – surely).
Lotus: Lotus have been a bit of an enigma. After Grosjean’s qualifying performance, the expectations are very high – but although Raikonnen’s race pace was good, it was not podium threatening. Here, Raikkonen is about 0.2s up on the McLarens, and Grosjean is about equal with them. As the comments coming from the team suggest that they need to unlock more speed, I would guess that this puts them between Mercedes and Ferrari at somewhere around 0.8s down on the McLarens in race pace assuming a second stint fuel load.
Force India: The pace of the Indian cars seems to be better here. Di Resta’s stint was about 1s off the McLarens, with Hulkenburg about the same pace as Raikkonen. The issue here is that Di Resta was more than 1.5s down in Australia. A second stint fuel load would suggest that the Force Indias are within a second of the McLarens. Even if the fuel load is less (maybe a longer first stint is assumed), this would put the Force Indias at around 1.0-1.2s down, which is still pretty competitive.
Sauber: There is only really one Sauber stint to go on, that of Perez, which is about 0.5s down on the McLaren pace. The team didn’t seem too happy at the end of the day, so I’d guess that this puts them 1.5s behind the McLarens, perhaps at the back of the midfield.
Toro Rosso: Ricciardo did two long runs, one on mediums and one on hards. The pace difference was of the order of 0.3s which bodes well for the Toro Rossos to use the hard tyre in the race. And the tyres seemed to last at least as well as anyone else’s, with the hards lasting better. Pace? Well, I have the Australian at about 1.2s off the McLaren pace, which is consistent with Melbourne.
Williams: Maldonado has also done a run on the mediums and a run on the hards, with the hard tyres being 0.5s slower. The pace was very good – essentially on the McLaren pace. From the Melbourne weekend, I can believe that the car is about 1s away from the McLaren pace, so I would guess a second stint fuel load here.
Caterham: The last team to provide useful information is Caterham, with Kovalainen about 1.7s from the McLaren pace, and Petrov closer at 1.1s down. I would guess that this puts the green cars over 2.5s from the pace, which again would leave them adrift of the midfield.
In summary, the best guess I have of race pace based on Friday practice is:
Force India/Toro Rosso @1.2s,
But I guess that there could be major set up improvements overnight. Or my reading of the fuel levels could be just plain wrong. Oh, and it may just be that the pace on the hard tyre will make a significant difference, as I can see teams wanting to run the hard for the majority of the race given that the medium is struggling to last. In which case the teams looking better on the hard tyre (I can only tell Toro Rosso so far) may well be at an advantage. Unless there is serious track development, it is looking like three stops – the tyre lifetimes look similar to last year. Or four – it is worth noting that the penalty of a fourth stop is much less than last year as the pace difference between the tyres is less. A second stint on tyres which are a few tenths slower will hurt much less than a second stint on tyres which are over 1s slower. Could be interesting.
Anyway, let’s see what happens tomorrow.