Kimi Raikkonen's self-declared "easy win" in Australia was all down to tyre strategy – but was last weekend’s Grand Prix truly an indication of what’s to come, or are there more tyre surprises in store?
In the end it was simple. Two stops beat three in Melbourne on Sunday and only one team at the front had a car and driver combination that could make it work.
It was all about tyre management in the race rather than out-and-out pace in qualifying – as the results clearly showed: Raikkonen started seventh and finished first; Alonso started fifth and finished second; Vettel started first and finished third.
And while it is dangerous to read too much into the first Grand Prix of the season, there are already some clear tyre factors that will play an important part this season...
RED BULL’S QUALIFYING BALANCE
Once again, Red Bull flew on a single lap – but in Australia their race strategy suffered as a result.
Sebastian Vettel may have got pole but immediately after qualifying he knew that his race was compromised. Red Bull’s strategy demanded he start from the front so he’d pushed hard for an extra lap on his super soft rubber, just to make sure he had it in the bag. Doing that effectively took a couple of race laps off the durability of the tyres.
That won’t happen every time. It happened because the track conditions were changing and Vettel could not be sure until right at the end that he didn’t need that final lap.
We can expect Red Bull to boss qualifying again in other races, but on a more consistent track they will not need to push as hard - and that crucial additional tyre conservation could be key to race success.
LOTUS’S LONG-RUN CONSISTENCY
It’s obvious from the strategy that Lotus has a car that can be kind on tyres and make them last – but only from the lap graphs is it clear just how comfortable Raikkonen’s race really was.
During a race there are two main factors to lap time – fuel level and tyre wear. As fuel goes down, the lap time gets quicker but lap after lap tyre degradation has the opposite effect to a greater or lesser extent.
Raikkonen was able to make two sets of soft tyres last 25 and 24 laps including in/out laps. Alonso’s longest run was 19 laps and Vettel’s 21 and although both could have gone longer, they would have seen too much performance drop-off before getting to the 25 laps needed to make a two-stopper work.
Raikkonen’s mid-race pace was relatively level (aside from a brief drop due to a small rain shower) while his final stint showed very limited tyre degradation as he consistently got faster as the fuel burned off.
In contrast, Vettel’s third stint (his second set of medium tyres) showed significant wear in the middle and his last was only level. Alonso’s showed even more dramatic drop-off in the first medium-tyred stint and also significant drop-off late in his final stint.
That’s how it worked in Melbourne, at least. And Lotus will hope that it will work like that at other tracks too.
TRAFFIC AND TYRE GRAINING
Vettel suggested after the race that this year’s Pirellis suffered from running in traffic more than they have in the past – and that will make strategic traffic avoidance even more critical than before.
Running in the ‘dirty air’ (aerodynamic turbulence) behind another car results in a reduction in downforce and therefore a reduction in grip for the car behind. As a result, it makes it harder to conserve tyres.
However, that could have been made more significant by the added effects of temperature and graining in Australia.
Graining happens when a car does not have enough grip and it slides on the track – which typically occurs when there is not enough temperature in the track to warm the tyres up. It’s accentuated when a car is not well set up, when a car has limited downforce or when a driver is too aggressive on tyres that are not in their optimum operating zone.
Small bits of rubber break away from the surface and stick to the tyre, creating an uneven contact patch - and the more this happens, the less grip a car can get from its tyres.
The weather was unusually cool and damp last weekend, however, and not typical of conditions expected for most other races – so this kind of tyre graining may not be a factor at other venues.
Last year’s unpredictable start to the season has made teams cautious on reading much from the results of Australia – with Raikkonen claiming it will be at least three races before we know the real trends.
But last year a narrow tyre operating window meant different teams benefitted at different temperatures, which is why it was so unpredictable.
This year, Pirelli have deliberately created more consistent tyres with a wider operating window, and that could mean the degradation trends in Australia are more typical of what we can expect this year than they were last year.
Only time will tell on that one. But in past seasons the opening race has often actually given a good indication of things to come – and if that is the case then Lotus could be looking pretty good...