Friday, 28 May 2010

Anticipation builds for Istanbul weekend

Friday at the Turkish Grand Prix saw McLaren top the timesheets in both free practice sessions which were held in blazing heat. Lewis Hamilton was quickest in the morning before Jenson Button headed the times in the afternoon, just pipping Mark Webber. The Australian pulled off before the end of the session with an engine failure. Sebastian Vettel tried out the new F-Duct device on his Red Bull and declared himself happy with his new chassis which he has named Randy Mandy. Fernando Alonso wasn't far off the front running pace in 5th but team mate Felipe Massa had issues, running wide several times at turn 8 before spinning into the gravel at the corner on his only set of soft tyres. The Brazilian got his car back to the pits but his tyres were badly damaged and he only managed 10th position. Mercedes pair Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher were less than a tenth apart in 6th and 7th with Robert Kubica and Vitaly Petrov 8th and 9th for Renault.

Massa was not the only driver having problems through the quadruple apex turn 8, with several drivers taking to the vast run off area on the outside of the corner. Most recovered back onto the race track but Adrain Sutil found the barriers in the closing moments of the first session. The German lost it on the third apex of the corner and did signficant damage to the front right corner of his car. He did get back out on track in second practice. Force India also tested out a F-Duct device today which is called a Switchable Rear Wing (SRW). At the back end of the field, Lotus continued to show promising pace with Heikki Kovalainen just 0.7secs off Jaime Alguersuari in the Torro Rosso. Lucas Di Grassi ran for the first time with the updated Virgin. Meanwhile at HRT, Sakon Yamamoto had his first outing for the team, taking over from Bruno Senna in the first session.

Red Bull ran the F-Duct on Sebastian Vettel's car in the first session. He operated it by using his left hand, similiar to how Ferrari used their device in Barcelona. However they have adjusted it so that the driver can now use his knee to operate it like the McLaren drivers. In the speed trap, Vettel was only going 1kph faster than Webber which would suggest that Vettel was not getting much performance from using it. Team principal Christian Horner was also unsure that the device would offer a big gain but praised the team for how quickly they had got the device onto the car. However after analysing the data the team has decided not to use it for the remainder of the weekend. Webber's engine problem cost him some running time but the lost engine only had 50km's of life left so not a major headache for the team. The Renault is not the strongest engine for overall power but tends to maintain performance over use better, is usually very reliable and has the best fuel efficiency in the field.

McLaren seem confident of a good result after strong pace today. The combination of fast corners and being able to run the MP4-25 stiff seems to bring the best out of the car. Of course, the test on this track is turn 8 and one of the challenges is that the setup required for the corner differs from what is needed on the other 13 turns. This means that engineers, as well as drivers, face a difficult challenge in getting the right compromise for car setup. Another problem for McLaren is getting one lap pace in the crucial Q3 session. This season we have seen cars do more than 1 flying lap on a run in order to get the best out of the tyres. Qualifying tomorrow may be a different challenge. If we have a repeat of the 50C track temperatures then it may be a case of getting 1 lap out of the soft tyre. We have seen people in the past lose the best of the tyres in the final sector so the balance between getting the tyres switched on but conserving enough in hand for a full lap will be a key factor tomorrow, particularly as sector 3 is the most dependant on mechancial grip.

There has been plenty of news floating about the paddock these past couple of days. The Pirelli deal which i said was done on Twitter on Tuesday is likely to be announced this weekend, with 3 compounds of dry tyres being supplied as well as an intermediate and wet choice. The speculation about the driver market had the brakes applied yesterday as Stefano Domenicalli said that Felipe Massa would probably be retained for 2011 alongside Fernando Alonso. Red Bull are hopeful of getting a new deal sorted for Mark Webber soon and insist Kimi Raikkonen is not an option. Ross Brawn says he would be happy to have the same drivers for next season and McLaren are unhappy to change their all english lineup so it looks like it could be a fairly stable market next season. In other news, Cosworth terminated their engine supply deal with USF1. I'm sure most people were confident of this fact considering the Americian outfit never made it to the grid!

So 1 more hour of practice at 9am BST followed by qualifying at 12 noon. Note that qualifying is held an hour earlier in Istanbul than the other European venues on the calendar. I expect Red Bull to show their full hand tomorrow and take another pole despite no F-Duct but can McLaren finally nail it when it matters or can Ferrari surprise in their 800th grand prix? We will find out tomorrow.

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