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Trick of the tyres

Formula none: How F1 turned into a lottery


AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX JENSON BUTTON TEAM: Mclaren-Mercedes Button started second in Melbourne, behind his teammate Lewis Hamilton, but his smooth driving style and a timely safety car intervention took him to the chequered flag Current position: 8 (45 points)

It usually used to be a relatively simple game of win pole, win race. That's changed this season with seven races throwing up seven different winners. Many feel the answers lie in the tyres.

The favourite game in the Formula 1 paddock is poker. Drivers and team owners often get together and play a few hands, winning or losing a few bucks. A card game, poker involves betting and individualistic play where the winner is determined by the ranks and combinations of their cards, some of which remain hidden until the end of the game. That sounds quite like F1, doesn't it?

With tricks up their sleeve like car design and secret race strategies, each race is quite like a game of poker, where each player bets that the hand he has will be the highest ranked. But the buzz floating through the gleaming motorhomes and the pitlanes nowadays has little to do with poker. Lottery is what you hear everywhere.

With seven winners in as many races, Formula 1 is now, according to some, a lottery. The last time the sport saw so many different winners so early on in the season was 19 seasons ago in 1983, when five different constructors won the first five races.

For a sport that was derided for being too unpredictable and boring -Vettel had a phenomenal past season and had no competition - the unpredictability has been as baffling as absorbing. No driver lands at the circuit armed with the thought that a pole position will see him through to the chequered flag, making teams jumpy and unsure.

Lewis Hamilton began the season in Melbourne on pole but it was his McLaren teammate Jenson Button who won the race. Sepang again saw Hamilton as the fastest in qualifying but it was Scuderia Ferrari's Fernando Alonso who started eighth on the grid and won the race. Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Pastor Maldonado and Mark Webber kept the tradition of winning a race from the front row, while surprising many with their race pace.

Hamilton, who along with Alonso had scored in every race, finally converted that consistency into a win at the Canadian Grand Prix. Given that the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-27 has been the most consistently quick car this season, Hamilton could very well be the first double winner of 2012. Calmer and more confident, Hamilton has left the sullen temperament and look of 2011 behind him. A change in residence - he has swapped the beautiful but isolated Swiss Alps for the energy and pizzazz of Monaco - has worked out beautifully for the 27-year-old who now sits at the top of the leaderboard with 88 points.

But what exactly has caused F1, which used to be a pretty humdrum routine of pole to flag, to be in such disarray? Aerodynamics, which is just as important as the driver, is suddenly playing second fiddle to a mixture compound of rubber, carbon, sulphur and oil. Now it's not just about which car can generate greater downforce and go faster through the corners. A car's downforce is still a crucial component of its speed, but only tangential to how it impacts upon the car's tyre performance. The battle is increasingly coming down to who can drive faster and steadier on those Pirellis. When everything's working properly, the McLaren and Red Bull are the two fastest teams in qualifying. But in both Malaysia and Barcelona, the Williams, Ferrari and Sauber - cars that cannot match McLaren or an on-form Red Bull in qualifying - were the fastest race cars. It means that even if McLaren and Red Bull still have a downforce advantage over those cars, traits of the tyres don't allow for that to be a useful factor in a race.

When they became F1 racing's official tyre supplier in 2011, Pirelli immediately spiced up the on-track action with their less durable compounds. A year later and the Italian manufacturer are back to ruffling feathers. With seven different winners from seven races, Pirelli has come in for criticism. No one can deny that the tyres are responsible for creating a truly unpredictable season. "We know that we've made a bold move by bringing the harder compounds into a much softer range, " Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery stated in a recent interview. Red Bull were the first constructor to have both their drivers win a race each - McLaren are the other - and hold a 31-point lead over the Woking-based team. But the Dietrich Mateschitz-owned team is nowhere close to figuring out the trick of the tyres.

"Formula 1 has always been about aerodynamics, " said Red Bull boss Christian Horner, the man who has in his employment Adrian Newey, the best car designer there is. "But this year that seems to be far less a factor. I'm struggling to explain it and it seems to be all about the black art of managing these tyres. Whoever understands the tyres and broadens the window in which they work will prevail. "

His words have found resonance in the paddock. Mercedes' technical director Bob Bell agrees. "There are clearly things going on with how the tyres need to be used to get the best out of them that I don't think people are on top of, " he said. "The story of the year has been dictated by how you get the best out of the tyres and the tyre choices you make. " This year's Pirellis have a curious combination of being reluctant to switch on - to get up to temperature quickly enough - but then when they do, they are prone to heat degradation after a few laps. Taking care of your tyres isn't a new skill for F1 drivers, it was also the case with last year's tyres. But what's keeping things interesting is the variation in the competitive order as teams seem to be unsure about what will work and what won't.

Also earlier, the more you loaded the tyre with downforce, the more the tyre gave you. Pirelli quickly reaches a saturation point - where beyond a certain loading they couldn't translate any extra downforce in the high-speed corners into more grip as the tyre overheated, breaking down the chemical bonding.

So while on one hand you have downforce saturation clumping the speeds of the cars together, narrowing the lap-time difference between a great car and good ones, on the other hand these tyres are slow to warm up but quick to overheat. Alonso, who's currently second at 86 to Hamilton's 88, is perhaps the only exception among the front runners and has struggled considerably less to get his softer tyres warmer quickly and has figured out how to treat them better. Along with Hamilton, he is definitely one of the title favourites. So will the title race come to who takes better care of their tyres?

Hembery says: "The relationship between car and tyres has become more sensitive and it can mean you are penalised heavily if you get it wrong. But in a few weeks you will see that teams know exactly how to get the best performance out of the tyres. "

Wait and watch.

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