Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

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The Indian Grand Prix proved to be another fascinating tactical battle between teams and drivers, showing that there’s often more than one way to get the best out of a race situation.

When the teams ran in Friday’s free practice sessions, it quickly became clear that the two nominated tire compounds had vastly different characteristics. The soft tire, or option, delivered a lap time around a second faster than the medium, or prime, but deteriorated significantly within a handful of laps. The medium was slower, yet withstood the abrasive surface of the Buddh International Circuit and showed almost no signs of degradation or wear for long spells, even on heavy fuel loads.

This all meant that race strategy, even more so than normal, had to be planned out before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The two most obvious race strategies were to qualify, and therefore start the Grand Prix, on the faster option tire, run that for a short spell, before doing two long stints on prime to the end; or conversely qualify and start on prime, even though it meant taking a hit on lap time and therefore grid position, before another stint of the same and switching to the options right at the end of the race.

There wasn’t much on paper between the two, but in fact most simulations had the latter version coming out as being slightly quicker by four or five seconds over the course of the entire race. Both were therefore feasible options and a few teams chose to cover both bases and split their two drivers.

You might ask why, if one strategy shows up as being four seconds faster than another, doesn’t everyone just go with that one?

There’re many factors to be taken into consideration before deciding on race plans, some aren’t always obvious to the outside world.

First, teams need to look at their two drivers and pinpoint their individual strengths and weaknesses. If one driver is clearly better than the other at looking after tires, he could manage a longer stint on options, or even in extreme cases, look at one less stop than his teammate. We saw this in Japan between the two Red Bull drivers.

Another consideration is a driver’s ability to cleanly overtake the pack if he comes out into traffic after a pitstop. Again, we saw the difference between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in Japan when both of their strategies needed them to catch and pass Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Vettel did it quickly and cleanly, without losing time or hurting tires behind his rival. Webber spent two laps fighting under the Lotus’ rear wing and lost time on the track to his teammate, but took valuable life from his Pirellis, which meant his strategy failed.

The ability to deliver a qualifying lap late in the session, under pressure and without the need to do multiple runs will determine how many new sets of tires the team have to use in the race. This obviously has a big impact on strategy.

In India, those who qualified and started on options had already taken three laps of life from their tires before the race had even begun, those who were able to save options and then set Q3 times on primes, were able to keep a brand new set for the last race stint. On a circuit where soft tires only lasted a few short laps, that was where part of those four or five seconds difference would come from over the alternate race strategy.

The team know their drivers inside out and so the best strategy for one, may not be necessarily the best for the other.

Other factors that come into play when deciding how to approach a race include the nature of the circuit. The first one or two turns can be crucial after the race start when the field’s bunched up, adrenaline’s high and nothing’s quite up to temperature. If the run down to turn one’s short and the corner tight, a team might prefer to go all out in qualifying to be at the front and in relative safety, over a seemingly preferable race strategy that might have them on alternate tires but further down the pack, like Webber did on Sunday. While Vettel got through the first few turns in the clear and unscathed, his teammate got caught up with other cars and compromised his original plan just a little bit.

The statistical chance of a safety car at any particular circuit can have a huge impact on deciding a team’s race decisions. The chance of the safety car playing a part generally diminishes after the first two laps of any race. In India, those who started on option, like Vettel, would’ve benefited had that happened early on, enabling them to pit and ditch the soft tire, spending the rest of the race on mediums.

When Webber stopped on lap 29 today, he took soft, option tires, perhaps not the ideal tire for that part of the race, but he did it with a safety car in mind. If an incident had occurred, he too could’ve used the ‘free’ pit stop to switch back to the prime and finish the race on them. If he’d taken primes at the stop and the safety car had then come out, it would’ve ruined his Grand Prix as he’d have been forced to stop and take options, having not yet used them, and been left with an unmanageably long last stint.

In hindsight this was over-cautious. In the three years we’ve been racing in India, the safety car hasn’t yet made an appearance and at that middle stage of the race, it was highly unlikely it was going to. His fastest way to the end was to stay on primes and take the new options for a very fast, but short final stint, when the car was at its lightest and the field at its most stretched. In the end it was academic as he retired with an alternator failure.

Weather; track evolution; the amount of time lost in pitlane for each stop; the car’s characteristics like top speed or traction and many other parameters are all carefully considered before heading into qualifying. Of course depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoons, the whole thing needs looking at again, the simulation models updated with grid positions, another look at the forecasts, start performance and so on.

Many people, both at the track and back at the team’s European bases work through the night to give the drivers and engineers the best possible scenarios before Sunday’s race, but once the lights go out it’s a constantly morphing model and the team need to be able to react as the race unfolds.

Often it’s the ability to think on one’s feet, that sets a good team apart from a great one.

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.

With aesthetics fixed, F1 chiefs turn attention back to engine sound

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Following the first official on-track running of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Friday and the first chance for the majority of fans to see the new-style cars in action on TV, what we already thought we knew became fact.

The new technical regulations for 2017 are awesome.

The drivers had already given the quicker cars a big thumbs up after testing, with the quicker lap times and more physical nature of their chariots only increasing the challenge and satisfaction on offer.

But now the fans have seen that as well. Typical on-board cameras and classic corner angles make for easy comparison through the years. Watching on TV, it looked to some as though they’d hit the ‘1.5 x’ fast-forward on their remote. The cars were that quick.

They look good too. After finding big gains over the winter, the bulkier, angrier look that all 10 chassis offer – combined with the fatter tires provided by Pirelli – has made F1 look sexy again. It’s been a big, big success for the sport.

As necessitated by the nature of competition, F1 doesn’t simply go ‘job done’ and put its feet up. Instead, attention turns to the next fix that is required: the sound.

Since the introduction of the V6 turbo power units in 2014, the sound produced by the F1 field has been a huge point of contention. F1’s push down a greener, more efficient route – as requested by car manufacturers looking to keep with the times – came at the expense of its iconic, piercing chorus of V12, V10 and V8 engines.

It was a matter up for debate in Friday’s team principals’ press conference in Australia, with a number of F1’s biggest players hitting the same note: something has to change.

“I think that rather than focus on the looks I would prefer to focus on the sound,” Red Bull chief Christian Horner (pictured above) said.

“I think the best sounding car we have here this weekend is a 12-year old Minardi [show car] that 12 years ago had the worst sounding engine in it and was hopelessly uncompetitive.

“I think that when you hear the acoustics of a V10, you’ve only got to go and see the faces around the circuit to see what it embodies in fans of Formula 1, so I would be far more focused on addressing that element than the aesthetics of the cars at the moment.”

Mercedes’ Toto Wolff added: “Like Christian says, if we can work on the sound of the car and if we look into a future generation of engines that is something that needs to be considered.

“There wasn’t enough emphasis on the sound in the past and if we can combine great technology, affordable technology with a lot of horsepower and a good sound, that would be really ticking a box.”

On a weekend that has seen F1’s new owner, Liberty Media, enjoy a strong presence in the paddock through the sport’s CEO and chairman Chase Carey, commercial chief Sean Bratches and sporting managing director Ross Brawn, the future path for the sport has been debated frequently.

A number of team chiefs came together for a Strategy Group meeting earlier in the week, where a number of issues were discussed as Liberty begins to settle in.

For Ferrari’s Maurizio Arrivabene, the constant discussions are an important process on the way to making meaningful change to F1, particularly when it comes to cost control, on-track performance and the series’ entertainment.

“Reducing the cost and increasing the performance, they are the two key factors,” Arrivabene said.

“Then, of course, it’s an entertainment, what we are doing here. It’s part of the entertainment business. Everybody, they’re open to discuss and talk about new ideas in the appropriate places.

“At the moment we have governance, so talking to everybody to help the sport to grow is fine until we are all aligned to the actual governance. Or, if we want to change it, we have to sit and discuss about this.”

The focus on entertainment was something Horner welcomed, believing F1 to have become too technical in its ways, risking confusion among fans.

“I personally think there is far too much emphasis on technology at the moment and we’re spectacularly bad at communicating that,” Horner said.

“I think the average fan and viewer understands very little about the technology that’s in a Formula One car which, as Maurizio alluded, is enormously expensive.

“So, I think the Commercial Rights Holder, it’s their business at the end of the day. They have to decide what they want the sport to be and, if the route is fan-attraction and creating a really exciting product, and at the end of the day they want to create great content on TV then it’s vital they come up with an outline of what their vision of Formula 1 is.

“And then, obviously, the FIA have a regulatory position and the teams need to be involved in that process. We have a process that that can be achieved in if two of the three parties agree.”

The next few years are set to feature plenty of political jostling as the teams, Liberty and the FIA all put forward their visions for the future of F1.

While there will be disparity, consensus will likely be found on the engine front. Although the V6 turbos are hardly unpleasant, as F1 seeks to rediscover its glory days – something it has made positive progress in via its changes for 2017 – a revision or tweak is surely on the cards for 2020.

Quite what form it will take? There lies one of the big battlegrounds for F1’s leaders to compete on in the coming years.