At the last Grand Prix in Bahrain, the fastest cars in the long runs in Friday Practice were the Lotus cars. Comfortably. Despite this, I saw no predictions suggesting that Lotus were going to be fastest in the race. I had them as good as McLaren/Red Bull and with better tyre degradation, but even though I highlighted them as being worth watching, I had failed to take the Friday data at face value – and assumed (along with everyone else) that they were running less fuel. It turned out that what we sawe was what we got. This time round, I don’t think people are going to make the same mistake.
Apart from China, the race pace this year has been slightly slower than 2011 (and the qualifying pace much slower). Therefore, based on last year’s data, we are expecting first stint pace in the low 90s (or perhaps high 89s) bracket. Curiously, the winter test pace was faster than this, being mid-low 89s, but this is likely to be due to the lower temperatures. What is comforting is that the faster cars were in the expected pace bracket – this suggests to me that they were probably on a full fuel load. Including the Lotus cars.
The McLarens and Red Bulls did stints on the soft and the hard tyres, with the McLarens being substantially faster, especially on the hard tyres. Lotus are slightly faster than McLaren, but only slightly.
The relative pace of the cars is:
Button (softs) +0.2s
Hamilton (softs) +0.3s
Button/Hamilton (hards) +0.6s
The pace of the Red Bulls is a concern for the analysis. Ususally, this would be an indication that the other cars are using a second stint fuel load, and that we can adjust their times slower by approximately 1s per lap. This would put Lotus and Red Bull on a par, and McLaren 0.5s down – which is not far from what we saw in Bahrain. Either way, Lotus are quick. My guess is that the cars are all on full tanks (given the Bahrain experience) and this suggests that Red Bull are struggling for race pace.
Moving further down the grid, we have the following pace:
Vergne/Di Resta +1.4s
The pace of Alonso is almost certainly down to fuel load – a 1s gap to Massa is consistent with running a second stint fuel load. This supports the suggestion that McLaren are running full tanks, as it is unlikely that Alonso is faster than them, even with the upgrades. The Williams cars are also running lower fuel (almost certainly), but even so they have good race pace once again – it looks to be similar to Red Bull.
With the tyre degradation being high, the suggestion from this data is that Mercedes could well be in the same state as they were in Australia and Malaysia (and a lesser extent in Bahrain) – their race pace seems to be firmly in the midfield, which seems to be very close once again. It looks like Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso will be very close – with Ferrari having lifted themselves to the front of this group.
So Lotus are clearly in with a shout of the win, but much will depend on how well they qualify. The opposition seems most likely to come from McLaren, and the silver cars will probably start ahead of the black cars. Whether the Mercedes and Red Bulls can allow the McLarens to get far enough ahead to stay unchallenged will be interesting. That’s if the data can be taken at face value.