Will the British Grand Prix be the Game Changer?

This weekend we will see the arrival of the 2011 British Grand Prix. This race is very important, and arguably one of the greatest races on the calender; many F1 fans rank the Silverstone venue at the top with tracks like Spa, Monza, and Monaco. The track is a very demanding circuit, combining both high speed and low speed corners to create a demanding and unforgiving track. Silverstone has been updated for this year, with a brand new pit complex, which has changed the position of the grid, but drivers are not concerned that it will effect their race.

So far this season, we have seen Sebastian Vettel thrashing the competition in every venue, both in qualifying and in race pace. He has won six out of eight races, and has finished no lower than second in this year’s championship. In qualifying, he has secured seven out of eight pole positions, being beaten out only once by team mate Mark Webber in the Spanish Grand Prix. Although Bernie Ecclestone has deemed this dominance “interesting,” many F1 fans would like to see other drivers at the top of the podium this season, and have a closer title fight. In the last three races of the 2010 season, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Jenson Button, and Lewis Hamilton all had the opportunity to secure the title. I fear that this year Sebastian Vettel may secure the title long before the season is over, and we will not experience the same, to-the-wire climax that we saw last season. Will any of Sebastian’s rivals be able to pick up the pace?

Well, maybe they won’t have to. As we all know, the 0ff-throttle blown diffusers have been banned for the British Grand Prix. The ruling in the blown diffuser debate was that a driver motion (taking one’s foot off of the accelerator pedal) should not affect the physical state or performance of the car. It was the same rule that banned the controversial F-ducts in the 2010 season, as drivers were moving their hand to alter the aerodynamics of the car to increase top speed. The FIA must have known that teams were running these blown diffuser systems, so it is unclear as to why they did not clamp down on them earlier during the year. There is some speculation, however, that they are now banning these systems to actually slow the Red Bull race cars down, and allow the other teams to challenge for victories. Red Bull has a very complex off-throttle blown diffuser system, and many think that the FIA are banning them to slow Red Bull down. Of course, many teams are running these blown diffusers, but there is much speculation that Red Bull will be affected more than Ferrari or McLaren, leading some to believe that the FIA have tried to make the competition closer by taking away some of RBR’s advantage.

The golden question is: What effect will it have on the field? I do think that the Red Bull team will experience a greater performance loss than other teams, but not by too much. Many people expect Red Bull to lose about a half of a second during their qualifying performance, and I think Ferrari is more likely to experience a loss of only about three or four tenths. That said, Red Bull already have a large performance advantage in qualifying, so whether the outcome will change the order on the grid or not is unclear. The pace of Ferrari and McLaren, and even Mercedes seems to have been increasing over the past few races. In the race, Ferrari and McLaren are sometimes even faster than Red Bull, so the performance loss for Red Bull just may be the opportunity that Ferrari and McLaren need to climb to the top of the podium. This rule change may mix up the midfield. Mercedes and Lotus Renault have been expected to lose quite a lot of performance from this rule change and may fall back further from the top three teams as their cars were designed around this system, especially Lotus Renault. However, James Allison, the technical director at Lotus Renault seems confident that the rule change will not be so bad for Lotus Renault. He explains that there are two effects of the blown diffuser ban: the first being the lost of downforce on the car, and the second being the change of balance in the car. Allison reasons that although it is unclear how much downforce Lotus Renault will lose in comparison to other teams, “it is possible that we (Lotus Renault) will suffer less on the balance shift side of the equation.” This is because the Lotus Renault chassis is designed with the exhaust blowing from the middle section of the car, rather than the rear. Allison argues that because the downforce will be lost in the “middle” of the Lotus Renault, their balance should not be too affected, where as the other teams will experience a downforce lost only in the rear of their car, which could create problems in terms of balance. It is a fascinating issue, and we will have to wait until this weekend to determine which teams experience the greatest performance loss. One thing is for sure: the engineers and designers will certainly be stressing and losing sleep over different ways to claw back some downforce!

As for specific drivers? Jenson Button has seemed to be quite on form in the past several events (Valencia aside), finishing third in Monaco and winning the race in Canada. He is keen on performing well this weekend in front of his home crowd. He had a minor injury on his knee this past weekend before his run at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. He is confident that this will not effect his performance in the car, so he is not stressed about his injury. Button is now tied for second with Mark Webber, some 75 points behind championship leader Sebastian Vettel.

Lewis Hamilton has taken much flak in the past few races for being too aggressive. He received a penalty in Monaco after the race, and ended his race with an accident involving his own team mate in the Canadian Grand Prix. After the Spanish Grand Prix he said that the title race was “over,” and Sebastian Vettel was going to be champion. The next day, however, he exclaimed that he would “never give up,” and that the title race was not over until it was over. Whether or not this was honest, Lewis is not one to give up. Even if Sebastian Vettel had already secured the championship, we could expect Lewis to race on the edge just for the sake of racing, which is why one can never count Hamilton out.

Webber has also shown an apparent increase in performance over the past couple of races. He finished third in Canada after being sent to the back of the pack via a collision with Hamilton on the first lap, and he was also able to cling onto a third place finish in Valencia, which he called “his best race of the year.” He also noted that “he hasn’t an idea” where the increase in pace came from, but that he should be in a good position to challenge for victory at the British Grand Prix. Whether the ban on blown diffusers or not will effect Webber dramatically or not is unclear. Although Webber has been consistently beaten fair and square by Vettel this year, he has shown in the past events that he is able to keep up with Sebastian and he is proud of his performance and willing to be aggressive.

Felipe Massa has also made a rapid increase in pace. I have been impressed with his performances recently. He has been able to show in the past several grand prix that he is able to match the pace of the Ferrari “number one” Fernando Alonso in both qualifying and race pace, which is good news for Massa as many thought that his accident in the Hungarian race in 2009 would be the end of his competitive career in Formula One. I hope to see Massa on the podium again this year, and I am confident that he can secure a podium position. Although he is very far behind in the championship, he can still stir up the results by outcompeting his rivals and mixing up the distribution of points.

Rather excitingly, Michael Schumacher has shown an increase in pace. Although he has been quite aggressive on some of his overtakes, arguably too aggressive, he is starting to show some of that Schumacher shine that was missing for the 2010 season. His performance in Canada was outstanding, just missing out on a podium position. Although his race in Valencia was a disaster, he seems to have regained some confidence and finesse that was missing from his driving. Although I do not believe he is in any position to challenge for the title, his increased performance is quite interesting, and if he is able to regain his performance, he could bring Mercedes GP to the podium this season.

Finally, Fernando Alonso has shown that he is a competitive driver this season, finishing second to Vettel both in the Monaco and European Grand Prix. Some argue that he could have overtaken Sebastian Vettel if the race was not red-flagged in Monaco. Fernando Alonso is an extremely competent driver, and Ferrari is an increasingly competent team. Although he is currently only fifth in the standings, I expect Fernando and Ferrari to make a charge at the top position, as they did in 2010. Alonso is a very dangerous driver to his rivals; aggressive, consistently quick, and smart. He is a double world champion for a reason, and I feel he can be a real competitor in this year’s title race.

Of course, it won’t be possible to tell how big of an effect the blown diffuser ban will have on all of the teams and drivers until we finish the British Grand Prix weekend. Until then, we can be certain that the drivers and engineers will be doing everything they can to ensure that they have the most performance they can possibly obtain from their car design. It is also certain that this British Grand Prix will be an exciting weekend, and the 2011 F1 season will return to it’s overtake-tastic, thrilling ways after the quite uneventful European Grand Prix.

 

If you have any thoughts or opinions about anything related to F1, please feel free to comment and add in your ideas!

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