Who will it be in Monaco?
The 2012 Formula One season is developing into one of the closest in decades. Seven different constructors have been in contention for victory at some point over the last five races with different winners triumphing at each event. It’s amazing to consider that 14 drivers have sat in a car capable of winning a Grand Prix in 2012 and we’ve only just started the European leg of the championship.
The last time Formula One was statistically this competitive was 1983 – another season where seven constructors fought for race victories.
There are a number of reasons why 1983 and 2012 have been so close. In both seasons, the front runners faltered whilst their rival’s cars had a mix of characteristics that brought them into contention.
Much has been made of the Pirelli tyres this year and how, combined with the new diffuser regulations, they have helped to even out the playing field. However, there are other factors at play as well.
Perhaps the main reason 2012 is proving so competitive is that McLaren has not made the most of its car’s potential. The team has possessed the raw speed to win three of the last five races and if they had done so we wouldn’t be discussing the closest season in years. Lewis Hamilton took a gearbox replacement penalty in China and was disqualified from qualifying in Spain. In both instances he missed out on front row position and a clear shot at victory. Hamilton also lost positions throughout the Bahrain Grand Prix due to some messy pit work so would be comfortably leading the championship if not for those dramas.
McLaren’s woes this year have opened the door for the other teams to take victory against the odds and several have shared the spoils.
Ferrari and Sauber were aided by a rain shower in Malaysia that was always likely to produce a mixed up race, whilst other teams have taken advantage of Pirelli’s new sensitive tyres.
Pirelli’s 2012 tyres appear to have a very narrow performance window and their characteristics change dramatically with temperature and ‘track evolution’. For example, Mercedes qualified very well in the first three rounds but had a goldilocks range of performances in each Grand Prix. In Australia the Mercedes W03 cooked its tyres, in Malaysia it didn’t generate enough heat, but in China the temperatures were just right. The result was that Mercedes scored only one point from the first two races but stormed to victory in Shanghai, highlighting the significance of track temperatures in 2012.
Track evolution is also a factor that was neatly illustrated during Q2 at Barcelona. Red Bull claimed that teams were able to improve their times by eight tenths of a second during the 15 minute session thanks to the changing track conditions. Webber’s fastest time in Q2 was the second fastest at the time it was set (making it easy to understand why he thought he was safe) but Mark ended up twelfth and out of qualifying by the end.
This sensitivity to track temperature and evolution means the current Pirelli tyres are magnifying the suitably of different cars at different circuits. It is a big contributor to the mixed up results in 2012.
Strategy is another key factor. Williams got the strategy just right in Spain. They stopped early enough to ensure Pastor Maldonado got the most out of his fresh rubber, but not so early that he ran out of grip at the end of the race. Sauber and Ferrari used the most effective strategies in Malaysia, and Lotus made the right calls in Bahrain.
Stopping at the optimal time during a Grand Prix in 2012 can boost a driver several positions. If McLaren have faltered and the track suits their car, they’re in a potentially winning position. When you add a rain shower (at Sepang) on top of everything else you’ve got a recipe for five very different race results.
Some of those factors were also present in 1983, although there was one other key variable that shuffled the results 29 years ago.
Brabham and Renault were two of the main championship contenders in 1983. Over the fifteen race season their cars registered 24 mechanical retirements and endured a string of other gremlins such as misfires and punctures that knocked them out of winning contention. Their troubles opened the way for other teams to take advantage early in the year.
The other main championship contender was Ferrari but the Italian team was hampered by its car’s lack of race pace relative to qualifying. This also helped mix up the top order.
Five different teams won the first five races in 1983, but if Andrea De Cesaris’ Alfa Romeo hadn’t suffered engine failure in Belgium it could have been seven different teams from the first seven races. As per 2012, this mix of race winners was helped by different cars that suited different circuits.
For example, De Cesaris was leading at Spa Francorchamps because the powerful Alfa Romeo 183T was very well suited to the long fast straights. It also performed well at Hockenheim but at most of the other races it was off the winning pace.
Tyrrell also took advantage of their car’s unique characteristics in 1983 by claiming a surprise victory at Detroit. Their underpowered yet nicely balanced car shone on the tight bumpy street circuit, and their unlikely win was one of just three points finishes the team managed all year.
Along with poor reliability and a variety of cars with different design philosophies, regulation changes also helped make 1983 a competitive season.
Sliding skirts were banned for the first time which marked the end of all ground effect aerodynamics. This was a disadvantage to Williams and McLaren who were still using the less powerful Cosworth engines and relied on ground effects for much of their performance. As such, both teams spent 1983 building new cars which they introduced late in the year powered by new turbo engines. Their championship campaigns were notably inconsistent.
Williams took pole position at the first race with Keke Rosberg and won at round five in Monaco, but the team scored only six points from the latter half of the season. McLaren suffered the same fate as they won the second race of the year at Long Beach but scored only two more podiums thereafter.
The transition away from ground effect aerodynamics prevented Williams and McLaren from launching a season long challenge.
The 1983 season featured an exciting conclusion to the championship. With four races to go Alain Prost held a strong points lead over Nelson Piquet but the Frenchman then suffered two retirements whilst Piquet claimed two victories. It came down to an exciting title finale in South Africa.
Prost was still on track for his first World Championship when turbo failure took him out of the final Grand Prix. Piquet was leading the race but quickly backed off to avoid a similar fate and came home third with enough points to be crowned champion.
It’s unlikely that reliability will play such a crucial role throughout 2012, but we may be in for an equally close championship battle.
Rd4. Red Bull