Webber, Vettel among those with interesting strategies for soft tires

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Trying to fit a round up of today’s thrilling Chinese GP into a few hundred words is not easy. The race weekend, as with the previous two before it, was always likely to be dominated by tires, but the relative difference in laptime between the two compounds here, surprised even Pirelli.

That speed differential between the two, offered the possibility of varying strategies in the race. We saw the majority of the top runners opting to qualify on the faster, yellow ringed soft tire, giving a faster ultimate single lap time, World Champion Sebastian Vettel was the most prominent driver to try something a little different.

Red Bull Racing’s strategy, initially with both cars, was to save the soft, short-life compound until the end of the race when the cars were lighter and would grip the track more. The compromise is that while running on the medium, durable tire, you’re in the middle of the pack at the start of the race when everyone else is faster and excitable and prone to accidents and traffic.

For Sebastian Vettel, you could say the plan worked. Starting 9th and finishing 4th is a good return and given a couple more corners at the end, he could have stolen 2nd.

One of the most interesting strategies, which we unfortunately didn’t get to see fully play out, was the one that Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber. He was somewhat forced into by the team’s failure to fuel his car correctly in qualifying. Having been sent to the back of the grid for failing to provide a fuel sample to the FIA on Saturday, the team opted to pull the car out of parc ferme overnight and make changes otherwise forbidden under normal conditions…you can’t be sent any further back!

Red Bull were able to set the car up for the race, as apposed to the normal compromise set up to accommodate single lap pace in qualifying. This means they changed gear ratios and aero settings to enable Webber to overtake easier down Shanghai’s long straights, as well as having free choice on their starting tires. Having not completed the full qualifying session, he also had more new tires for the race than everyone else too.

Interestingly, starting last, they opted to start on the soft tire, which everyone knew wouldn’t last more than about 5 laps in the Grand Prix, but rather than run for the 5 laps, he pitted immediately and changed straight onto the preferred medium compound.
This enabled him to get the mandated soft tire phase out of the way without actually losing any track position. He rejoined after his stop, still last, but able to complete the whole race on the better tire and it looked to be a good move. At the point where the front runners were being forced to pit after lap 5 or 6, Webber moved up through the field and was looking like a real contender. The midfield runners who started on the medium tire would have to fit the soft tire at some point, so Webber may have rescued a good opportunity from a dire situation.

Unfortunately a questionable decision on Webber’s part to lunge past a Toro Rosso ended in collision and a forced pitstop for a front wing change. That in itself wasn’t the end of the world, as they were only a couple of laps short of their intended pitstop window, but the pit crew who broke world records last time out in Malaysia, went from hero to zero one race later.

Webber rejoined the race, but half way round his out lap, the right rear wheel detached from the car and his Grand Prix was over. It would have been really interesting to see the result, but that’s Formula One.

There’s been a lot of complaining about tires recently, some of it perhaps justified, but no one can say that today’s race wasn’t fascinating and had an incredible finish, and the Pirellis played a big part in that.

Marc Priestley can be found on Twitter @f1elvis.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne