Lessons from qualifying - and likely tactics for this afternoon
The start of the Australian Grand Prix will kick off not only the 2007 Formula One season, but also the new regulations regarding tyres.
Bridgestone, now the sole supplier, brings two choices of dry-road compound to each race, here the medium and the soft. But now drivers must use each during the course of the race. Since the latter is inevitably going to confer faster lap times than the former, all of the top-ten qualifiers used the soft tyres and their race fuel loads. The key will be how long each driver can go not just on their chosen fuel load, but how long they can make their tyres last. In extremis, it is not impossible that harsher than anticipated tyre degradation might force a driver to pit sooner than planned. Several teams have reported that the soft rears grain quite quickly, so we are likely to get a good indication of which chassis work better than others.
Of those drivers outside the top 10, Super Aguris Anthony Davidson and Ferraris Felipe Massa went for the softer tyre, whereas it appears that Williams were running the medium compound and a higher fuel load, preparing to run through longer in the first stints. Others discovered that the degradation on the soft tyre was too much for their chassis.
The fascination will be to see how long those on soft tyres can run and whether they keep the soft compound for their second stints, and how little those on medium compounds feel able to do their mandatory stint on the soft.
The Ferrari drivers appear to have the advantage. The performance of the F2007 had universally been praised, and if you watch the drivers hands in the in-car camera shots it is evident how little work they need to do at the wheel. Thats why many expect polesitter Kimi Raikkonen to disappear into the distance after the start.
By contrast, McLarens Fernando Alonso is making big inputs, and at least one paddock insider believes that his tyres will suffer more than team-mate Lewis Hamiltons. The rookie seems much smoother and to have adapted his style better to them, and is renowned as a better racer than he is qualifier.
While Massa has to fight through the pack after his transmission problem yesterday (and BMW Sauber, for example, say they have definitely not ruled him out of contention), it will be fascinating to see how many laps apart the two McLaren drivers are on their pit stop strategy. In other words, how close their qualifying lap times really were.
Tyre performance is less of a worry at BMW Sauber as reliability. Fingers will be crossed in the camp after the ongoing problems in testing with the new seamless-shift transmission, which has been okay so far in Melbourne. Ferrari, too, are a little anxious after Massas problem, as are Spyker after Sutils loss of first gear yesterday; Red Bull after Mark Webbers transmission problem; and Toyota after Ralf Schumachers initial qualifying problem was traced to the gearbox software.
In seventh place on the grid, Webber is expected to be one of the earliest pit-stoppers, as it appears his sudden spurt in pace was due to the softer tyre. Likewise the Toyotas, which did much better than expected for similar reasons.
Super Aguri go to the line feeling very excited after their best-ever qualifying performance, and watch out for Davidson who was cross with himself for the mistake that left him a place behind team mate Takuma Sato. At Williams the general feeling yesterday was that they had done what they needed to on the medium tyre and are in good shape for the race. The Honda drivers are expecting understeer to compound their RA107s general nervousness under braking. David Coulthard and Toro Rosso pilots Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi are all concerned about their respective cars rear-end nervousness, which does not bode well for tyre life, medium or soft.
The most likely tactics on refuelling are two stops, with soft tyres staying on the cars while drivers seek to build advantages in the early and mid-parts of the race prior to running the harder compounds in their final stints. The softer tyres have a small white marking on the outer sidewall, though its size still makes it difficult to identify which tyre is being used when the cars are on motion.
One factor in the single tyre supply story which will also impact on individual race performances is the tendency for weight distributions to have come forward, making some cars steering very heavy. Watch out for some tired drivers in the second phase of the race.
By David Tremayne
For more on the 2007 regulation changes, click here.