Why couldn’t Lotus catch Vettel? Look to the tires

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Saturday’s qualifying showed it was clear certain teams had decided to play a tactical game this weekend, over going all out for the highest possible grid slot.

It’s not something the purists like to see, but a Formula One team will analyze every situation and do what they think is best for them, not what’s best for those watching.

With teams opting to either sit out the final qualifying session, or set a time on the slower, more durable race tire, it provided something of an anticlimactic Saturday afternoon, but set the scene for a fantastic strategic battle Sunday.

This weekend Pirelli not only brought a new rear tire construction as part of measures to ensure no repeat of the Silverstone fiasco, but brought two compounds which, at this track, gave a significant performance difference between the two. Typically, when this situation occurs between two tire types, we’re served up a Grand Prix with a mixture of different strategies and it’s rarely clear until the last few laps, how things might pan out. Today was no different.

Before the race began we all tried to calculate how the front six cars, starting on the soft compound, might fare against those starting farther back. The soft was only likely to last a handful of laps with cars full of fuel from the start, while the rest would potentially come into play in the last 10 laps when they too, fitted the considerably faster, soft-option tire.

Questions surfaces whether Mercedes had come up with fixes for their, now traditional, heavy race tire degradation. The answers came early. A poor start from Lewis Hamilton on pole position gave up track position to both Red Bulls, but more telling was his pace and early lap 6 pitstop to switch to the primes. Mercedes’ race with both cars was severely compromised by excessive thermal degradation of the rears, something today’s high track and ambient temperatures made much worse than earlier in the weekend.

The team desperately need track time to work on this area, but while everyone else we be learning at the upcoming Young Driver Test, Mercedes will miss out due to their penalty from the International Tribunal a few weeks back.

The predicted time difference between a two and three stop race was minimal here and the race finish proved it so.

Out front it looked like a three car battle, with both Lotus’ chasing down Sebastian Vettel on similar race plans. With Lotus unable to find enough pace to get past the Red Bull, they were forced to try something a little different to get past.

Romain Grosjean, running second, tried to undercut the leader and dived into the pits on lap 40 for new mediums, but couldn’t find enough on his out lap to jump Vettel, who responded a lap later. Kimi Raikkonen, now leading, but with one less stop, was faced with a tough call and a number of options to see the race out.

He could follow the other two and pit for mediums and race them to the flag, but the status quo would’ve likely resumed.

He could stay out and try and get to the end without another stop, hoping to hold off Vettel and co when they inevitably caught up by the last couple of laps, but the stint length would’ve been 36 laps on his medium tires. After Friday’s running this looked possible, but the higher temperatures today meant it was a long shot.

In the end, with Vettel and Grosjean held up slightly in traffic, Kimi opted to stay out. This gave him the option of gauging tire life a bit longer and deciding wether to try and get to the end, or attempt to open up a gap big enough to stop again and come out in front.

Clearing the traffic quickly meant the chasers just stopped Kimi from edging out the required gap and his choices were limited again. His big push had taken valuable life from his medium compound tires and the decision was taken to get to lap 50 and switch to softs.

The hope was that the faster soft tire would enable him to take the challenge to the Red Bull in the last couple of laps, despite the pitstop bringing him out at the back of the three car train.

Fernando Alonso, who’d remained largely anonymous during most of the race, did the same and came out behind Kimi.

Where the Lotus plan failed to a certain degree, was that the soft tires that went onto Kimi’s car were used ones from qualifying, they had no fresh ones left. This meant the expected gain in laptime wasn’t quite there in the first couple of laps and he didn’t close up quickly enough. Coupled with a delay in issuing team orders to let Kimi past Grosjean, it meant Vettel had just enough in the bag to hold on for his first win on home soil.

Teams all look to a variety of reasons why their races weren’t quite perfect in the end. Backmarkers, safety cars at the wrong time, temperatures or bad starts, but in the end perhaps using the extra set of soft tires in qualifying was the difference. Alonso, who did save soft tires on Saturday and pitted at the same time as Kimi, put in some blistering lap times at the end to bring himself right back into contention, challenging for third place.

You can follow Marc Priestley on Twitter @f1elvis.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.