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F1: C2A (Countdown to Austin) 2012 - Spain down, Monaco looms
Photo: Vodaphone McLaren Mercedes

Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, Stop 5 in the 2011 F1 calendar, feels like home to many of the drivers, it being the series' primary off-season testing track. It's also really home turf to Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso), the two Spaniards in competition this year. More remarkable than any of that, however, is that it had been from pole for 10 straight years.

This string included Mark Webber's (Red Bull) victory in 2010, and when he found himself on pole again this year -- with teammate Vettel next to him in P2 natch - all was looking rosie for both him and Red Bull. A problematic KERS unit on Vettel's ride might have helped him into P1, but once there he was certainly going to know what do with it, right? 

Not so fast. As Webber did his best to keep Vettel at bay, Alonso got the drop on them both from P4 and took the lead before either of the Red Bulls had even gotten fully up to speed. The Webber v. Vettel thing so far hasn't been as problematic as it was in 2010, when the two sparred frequently and took each other out once, but having snapped V's string of 5 straight poles, Webber seemed bent on making sure he stayed in the rearviews for at least a spell.

As it turned out, the duel at the end came down to Vettel (again fighting on-again/off-again KERS availability) trying to hold of Lewis Hamilton (McLaren). Vettel's strength though the final set of turns going into the start-finish straight prevented Hamilton from ever being close enough to actually attempt a pass going into braking for Turn 1, despite his machine's superior straight-line speed at the end. 

Vettel topped Webber by 0.630 seconds. The far smaller gap after 66 laps than between the two cars in qualifying (Hamilton started in P3 nearly 1 second behind Vettel) suggests McLaren may be closing the gap with Red Bull. Jenson Button taking the third step on the podium in the second McLaren entry doesn't hurt this train of thought either. Webber came in 4th. And Alonso, after his initial dash for glory, came in 5th, one lap down.

Nick Heidfeld (Renault) was the hard charger of the day, coming from last on the gird (24th) after failing to post a time in qualifying to finish 8th, while Nico Rosberg's (Mercedes) 7th place finish was enough to move him from 9th to 6th in the season standings.

Prill supplied a new harder compound for the hard tires this round. The wear was significantly greater, with some drivers going roughly half the race on the hards once switching to them, but even brand new they were 2 sec/lap slower than the options. For their part, the options were sometimes used for just single digits worth of laps before degrading to the point that they required changing.

With just three sets of each for the whole weekend, tire strategy once again played a role in events. Heidfeld having not run in qualifying broadened his arsenal, while McLaren effectively settled for their spots on the grid rather than continuing to try to match Red Bull's qualifying pace at the expense of tire tread. This latter move played a large part in keeping the McLaren's closer during the race than they were during qualifying and getting both Button and Hamilton on the podium beneath Vettel.  

Which brings up a question from one of our readers prompted by my describing F1 as the highest form of motorsport in my last post....Ultimately, 'highest form' is a subjective term, unlike say 'fastest' or 'oldest' or 'most popular' or 'most dangerous,' all of which can be measured somehow. I break down racing into three elements: car, driver, and strategy. As F1 currently stands I see it as the most even split between these three components of any series currently racing. Some series homogenize the car so much that only driver and strategy matter. Others sway towards reducing either the driver's or strategy's role. F1 right now requires maximizing all three components if you're even going to be competitive, much less win.

For full disclosure's sake I'll also cop right now to liking watch cars compete on non-ovals more than on ovals. It just looks more like driving to me.

And so to Monaco, one of my three favorite events of each F1 season. The streets are so small, and the cars so powerful that the skill required simply to navigate the place is mind-boggling. On this course, the scale tips in the drivers' direction over the car. There's just not that much room to run. It will, however, be interesting to see what role tire strategy plays as the choices will be soft (as the standard) and a new Pirelli super-soft (as the option).

Driver standings - Top 10
118 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
77 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
67 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
61 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
51 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
26 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) - Mercedes
25 - Nick Heidfeld (Germany) - Renault
24 - Felipe Massa (Brazil) - Ferrari
21 - Vitaly Petrov (Russia) - Renault
14 - Michael Schumacher (Germany) - Mercedes

Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
185 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
138 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
75 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
46 - Renault - Heidfeld, Petrov
40 - Mercedes - Rosberg, Schumacher
11 - Sauber-Ferrari - Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Perez
6 - STR-Ferrari - Sebastian Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari
4 - Force India-Mercedes - Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta
 

Next event: Monaco Grand Prix - May 26 (testing), May 28 (qualifying), May 29 (race).
Posted in: Sports
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