Tyres have been a talking point all year long in F1. But as we head into the final three races the effect they’re having on the championship is different to how it was at the beginning of the year.
When the season started the talk was all about how quickly the tyres would degrade and how hard they were to master. The first seven races were won by seven different drivers.
In recent races F1’s tyre supplier Pirelli has tended to err on the conservative side when it comes to picking tyres. Following last week’s race in India, where the hardest tyre was among those used, Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery admitted they probably could have used their softest compound, the super-soft tyre. Most drivers completed the race making just one pit stop.
This has made life easier for the teams but it’s also made races more predictable and the quickest car has usually ended up at the front. As things stand it’s possible the final seven races could all be won by the same driver.
McLaren in range of Red Bull
That driver is Sebastian Vettel, who heads into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the back of four consecutive wins. If he wins on Sunday he will become the sixth driver in F1 history to win five races in a row.
Vettel was on top of the times at practice on Friday but McLaren are not far behind. Indeed, when it was running on the medium compound tyre, the MP4-27 looked like the car to beat. Especially in Lewis Hamilton’s hands, as he has often been competitive around Yas Marina.
But when the teams tried the faster soft tyres, Vettel picked up more pace and ended up 0.168 seconds to the good over Hamilton. It’s a similar situation to what we saw in India, although Red Bull are not quite as far ahead, which is an encouraging sign for Sunday’s race.
However Vettel will be pleased to see Fernando Alonso down in seventh. Ferrari brought a host of new parts this weekend as they strive to keep Alonso in the championship hunt, but so far they do not appear to have yielded the desired improvements. Lotus got both their cars in front of both the Ferraris in the second session, which indicates they could give the red cars a hard time in qualifying.
Reliability biggest threat to Vettel?
The biggest concern for Vettel in the race could be reliability; the RB8 continues to show signs of fragility. In India Mark Webber suffered a KERS failure late in the race which cost him second place to Alonso. Webber had another KERS problem at the end of second practice today, which he said was different from the one that affected his car in India.
There is also a question over the behaviour of the Red Bull cars at top speed. Webber’s car was touching the ground, throwing up sparks on the straight during practice. The same thing happened to Vettel’s car in India, though the team said it was down to a part which had failed. Rival teams will surely be poring over this unusual behaviour at a sensitive part of the car in the hope it may yield some clue to how Red Bull have conjured up their latest leap forward in performance.
Vettel’s odds on winning Sunday’s race are already down to 1.95, and Hamilton’s are little better at 2.75. The more interesting bet is Alonso at 9.0. On the strength of his run to second in India five days ago it’s not bad value, but his form in practice today may spook some people out of taking it.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.