Friday, July 29, 2011

How do you beat Vettel?

At Silverstone

Sebastian Vettel surveys Formula 1 serenely from a dominant position at the top of the world championship as he heads into this weekend's British Grand Prix, where the Red Bull driver is the hot favourite to win for what would be the seventh time in nine races.

The German's record has been rooted in the dominance of the Red Bull car and it is expected to be as tough to beat as ever at Silverstone, where the track layout could have been designed to suit its superb aerodynamics.

But Vettel is not unbeatable - as McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have already proved this year. If the German is going to be stopped this weekend, or at any other race this year, this is how it is likely to happen.


Undoubtedly the biggest talking point ahead of the British Grand Prix is the decision to ban the use of off-throttle blowing of diffusers. This is a technology with which teams blow exhaust gases over the rear floor of their cars even when the driver is not pressing the accelerator, smoothing the airflow and increasing downforce and stability in corners.

This ruling will affect all the leading teams, and it remains to be seen whether it will change the pecking order. Intriguingly, though, it may also affect Vettel in comparison to to team-mate Mark Webber.

Red Bull and engine partner Renault were the pioneers of the technology last year, when they introduced it mid-season. But the run of form that put Webber top of the championship, including dominant back-to-back wins in Spain and Monaco, was achieved before it was introduced.

At that time, Red Bull were blowing their exhausts over the diffuser, but not when the driver was off the throttle, a practice that can lead to instability as the downforce comes off the car just when the driver needs it most - when he lifts off to enter the corner.

Webber found a driving style that minimised the effects of this more effectively than Vettel managed.

Sebastian Vettel

The Australian admitted to me that this "might have been a small part" of the reason why he was stronger than Vettel early last summer.

I asked him if he felt, therefore, that the new ruling could work in his favour in his attempt to beat Vettel for the first time this year.

"I don't think it can hurt," he said. "We're going to have a big change in how the cars are probably going to behave - I don't see that as a bad thing, mate."

Vettel adapted incredibly well to the new Pirelli tyres this season, while Webber has struggled to get on top of them - it is one of the reasons the German has dominated so far.

But as Webber says: "It's another start for both of us. You hope it's the other way around for me so I go, 'Bosh'. I might drop on to this a bit nicer than he might."


Vettel has based most of his wins this season on a simple strategy -put the car on pole, lead from the start and control the race.

The only way to stop him doing this is to either out-qualify him - as only Webber has managed to do this year, and then only once - or beat him off the start.

This was achieved by the McLarens in China - a race Hamilton went on to win - and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in Spain.

Do that, and Vettel is suddenly out of his comfort zone.

The limiting factor in races this season has been the sensitivity of the new Pirelli tyres - they lose grip quickly and if you abuse them, you are in trouble.

So leading at the start allows Vettel to treat the tyres gently while building up a small cushion.

He seeks to build a lead of about five seconds to enable him to respond to any attempts by rivals to use what is called "the undercut" - pass him by making an earlier pit stop and using the pace advantage of new tyres to get ahead.

This was demonstrated in Spain - where Vettel twice tried to undercut Alonso when running second to him in the early stages of the race. It failed at the first pit stops, but succeeded at the second, demonstrating the difficulty any driver in front of Vettel will have keeping him behind when he has a faster car.

But it doesn't always work like that.

In China, Vettel was beaten away by both McLaren drivers. He easily had the pace to stick with them during the first stint, but a decision to do a two-stop strategy rather than the three of McLaren backfired - the extra grip in Hamilton's tyres in the closing stages of the race made Vettel a sitting duck.


As well as China, this also happened in Monaco, where a mix-up at his first pit-stop put Vettel on the wrong tyres and forced him into a strategy that would have lost him the race had it not been for a later safety car.

Without that, the advantageMcLaren's Jenson Button built from what would have been a better strategy would have seen him win the race.

Even in the situation that did unfold, Red Bull's strategy might not have paid off - Vettel headed into the closing stages of the race with Alonso and Button right behind him and pressuring him hard on much fresher tyres.

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McLaren believed Vettel's tyres would wear out to the point of him becoming defenceless before the end of the race, but then Vettel had what they call "the luck of champions". A late safety car led to a red flag and he was able to change to fresh tyres for the final eight laps.


Leaving the Spanish Grand Prix in May, the chances of Vettel facing a challenge this year still looked pretty good.

Vettel had won in Barcelona, but only after fending off a clearly faster Hamilton in the closing laps - only the difficulty of overtaking at the Circuit de Catalunya had prevented the McLaren winning.

Coming up were two races on tracks where Hamilton fancied his chances - Monaco and Canada. But instead of beating Vettel, these events turned into a disaster for the Englishman.

A decision to do only one run in qualifying in Monaco led to him qualifying ninth when he had hopes of being on pole, and in the race he collided with two people on the way to sixth place.

In Canada, Hamilton's judgement seemed to have been clouded by qualifying only fifth. After making an impromptu visit to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to discuss his future that evening, he collided with two cars in the space of three racing laps on Sunday and retired. As Button later proved, it was a race Hamilton could have won.

So Hamilton could have been looking at a total of three - maybe four - wins instead of just the one, in which case Vettel would not be anything like as far ahead in the championship.


The vast majority of Vettel's F1 victories have come when he has dominated from the front, a situation in which he is supremely comfortable.

He is much less at ease having to make up positions or fending off pressure - as was proved in the thrilling climax to the Canadian Grand Prix this year.

After dominating in Montreal throughout, Vettel lost the win on the last lap, half-spinning while being pursued by the flying Button, who stormed through to a brilliant win.

This was not the first time he has made a mistake in a pressure situation, although in Vettel's defence, he was flawless under attack from Hamilton in the closing stages in Spain in May this year.

Nevertheless, Vettel - like anyone - can crack if pushed hard enough; it's getting into that situation that has been the difficulty for his rivals so often this season.

As Hamilton says: "You can push people into mistakes, and as long as you continue to apply pressure that's what you hope they're going to do. But for us to win this championship we have to be finishing ahead of them."


All of the above is all very well, but the reality is that Vettel's pursuers are fighting a losing battle as long as he has a fundamentally faster car.

"It is difficult to think about how to beat Vettel without a big improvement in our car or in McLaren's car for Jenson and Lewis," says Alonso, the man who was narrowly beaten to the title by Vettel last year.

"Their car so far is too dominant. It is a dominant position that maybe we don't remember since 2004 and Michael (Schumacher)'s time.

"Hopefully here in Silverstone we can see a turnaround of this situation in terms of performance. There is always the motivation to win a race but we need a step forward."

Alonso was not the only man at Silverstone on Thursday to liken Vettel's domination this year to Schumacher's seven years ago, when he won 13 races on the way to the most dominant of his seven championship victories.

So what does the great man himself think? Can Vettel be beaten this year?

"Difficult," Schumacher said.


Alex Zanardi Emilio Zapico Ricardo Zonta Renzo Zorzi Ricardo Zunino David Carl Allison Gregory Jack Biffle

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