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F1: is Formula One really the same sport as 100 odd days ago?

Bryan Edwards

er.. Wow. I thought I'd miss the Grid Girls (amazingly, I didn't notice they weren't there until someone pointed out that the parade as they left the grid carrying their signboards aloft didn't happen) and I thought I'd hate the halo (I did, until the racing started and then, except for one novelty moment, forgot it was there). I thought I'd be confused by the names of the tyres (I was, so I ignored it and it became irrelevant chatter) and I thought I'd be bemoaning yet another procession (actually, that was kind of true but it was a procession with enough drama to keep it interesting). Aside from the obvious colour changes, team changes and the halo, what's so different? The answer is "lots."

Alonso's McLaren started tenth and finished fifth. Cue celebrations? No: Alonso said, after the race, that basically, the numbers flattered to deceive. He admitted that the car's true performance should have put it ninth but that grid penalties, a virtual safety car, a real safety car (when the VSC was proved to be the wrong decision) and a couple of other cars' misfortune had boosted the Renault-engined iteration of the current McLaren above where the performance justified. But, hey, after three seasons pootling around at the back, mostly, getting both cars in the points at the first race of the season, especially after all the niggles in testing and, even, in free practice, was a victory of sorts.

Torro Rosso, which had shown strongly in testing, practice and qualifying ended up with two DNFs, ending up with all of those who had laughed at McLaren, saying they'd made a rubbish decision in separating from Honda, licking the egg of each other's faces.

HAAS, which had had a media frenzy once they admitted that, basically, the only thing they do in-house is work on the aero package (the chassis is built by Dallara and the mechanicals and electronics are from Ferrari) lost both cars due to a problems on wheel changes: both were released from the pits only to stop a few hundred metres later with loose wheels.

Conspiracy theorists had a field day: once Grosjean's car (which had been brilliant all weekend, making him a very happy bunny after last year's frustrations) parked in a place where there was no run-off area, no escape road or gate and no crane, the question arose over what to do about it and, of course, safety. That led to Vettel taking the lead.

How so? Traditionally, what would have happened is that there would have been waved yellows while a decision was made. In the hyper-aware of safety of today's F1 (some argue too aware), instead of doing that, the marshals fired off the Virtual Safety Car. That was probably the wrong decision: it was clear that the car would have to be towed away. That means trucks on the track and, as we know, in incidents of racing car v truck, the truck usually wins. Indeed, it is a couple of such incidents (one during a race and one during a straight-line test on a closed track) that led to the calls for head protection for drivers. The media concentrates on flying objects but truck-v-car incidents have been the cause of lingering deaths.

Once the marshals got their act together and brought out the real safety car, the race had been turned upside down.

The VSC is supposed to "neutralise" the race (every one circulates at a set speed maintaining distance from the car in front) and it's a fascinating concept that on paper looks great but in practice has a couple of unintended consequences.

First is the safety of the marshals: under a safety car, the cars collect, often within a few seconds, behind the lead car and form a snake. They circulate together which means that they are always one the same part of the track and, by extension, no one is where the marshals are working until they are all where the marshals are working. Under the VSC, although the speed is regulated, there is no long break from traffic.

The second thing is that, depending on the circuit, there is an anomaly: it can be faster to drive through the pit lane at the pit lane speed limit than to drive the longer-way around the track at the VSC limit. The difference can be so big that there is time for a (fluff-free) tyre change. That's what Alonso was talking about: his tyre change under the VSC bought him at least one, possibly two, places. At the pointy end, it bought Vettel the lead which he held onto to win despite Hamilton having, on the day, what was clearly the faster car and the greater driver pace. Indeed, it was Vettel's and Alonso's defensive abilities on a track where overtaking is particularly difficult, that secured their places. That's racing but for some it sticks in the craw.

Arguably, the FIA is going to have to look at the VSC rules to make sure that no advantage is gained by driving through the pits, even if a pit-stop is made. They have the data, if they choose to use it.

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