In-depth tyre analysis: Silverstone

In-depth tyre analysis: Silverstone

14 July 2011 – Valencia was viewed by many as a slight blip after the captivating run of races witnessed so far this season, with the coastal street circuit failing to cook up much in the way of on-track action. Sweltering air and track temperatures looked set to present the teams with a massive tyre-related headache ahead of the event, but the more conservative compound choices went a long way to reducing the anticipated impact.

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View GPUpdate.net's In-depth Tyre Analysis chart for the 2011 British GP
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The next stop on the calender was Silverstone, scene of Formula 1's first ever Grand Prix. When qualifying arrived following predominantly rain-interrupted practice sessions, a mere 32 thousandths of a second prevented Sebastian Vettel from claiming his eighth pole position of the season on Saturday, losing out to Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber for only the second time in 2011. The Australian was deservedly overjoyed with his effort, heading the front row at Silverstone for the second year in succession.

However, Sunday afternoon saw Ferrari become the third different victorious constructor since Melbourne back in March, with Fernando Alonso adding his name to the growing list of race winners this season. Capitalising on a Red Bull pit-stop error, the Spaniard surged ahead during the latter half of the race to record a fine victory which will no doubt send warning signals out to his championship rivals.

When analysing the Oviedo man’s race from a tyre point of view, some important phases shine through. On a similar strategy to most of the field, Alonso started on Intermediate tyres before completing three stints on the Soft Slick rubber. It is clear that he adapted to the conditions perfectly, staying calm when the track was damp before unleashing the pace of his Ferrari when the surface offered more grip.

The two-time Champion lost a position to McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton when the track was still drying, but his progress on the Option tyres clearly set him apart from his rivals. The second round of pit-stops proved to be the turning point and due to his speed on the softer rubber, Alonso made his tyre change right behind Vettel’s RB7.  As many say in Motor Racing, you make your own luck, and this burst of speed may just have added to the already high pressure levels amongst Vettel’s mechanics.

An uncharacteristic mistake was all Alonso needed, pulling away even further in the closing stages. This leads on well to Vettel’s race which was, as mentioned, severely affected by his inferior stop. Vettel dropped to third behind Hamilton as a result of the mistake, having to contend with increased tyre degradation in the dirty air for nine laps before an earlier final stop - forcing him to complete the longest final stint out of the top five drivers - saw him retake the place.

Vettel was able to lap freely at this point, but the damage was already done, with further tyre woes in the fourth stint adding fuel to the fire in terms of Alonso’s advantage. It was during the final few laps in which fellow Red Bull driver Webber launched an exciting charge for second place, although a somewhat unsurprising ‘maintain the gap’ message from Team Principal Christian Horner overshadowed the situation.

His spirited effort amid the consistent team order controversy was ultimately to no avail, but he finished less than half a second behind Vettel as the chequered flag dropped, the closest he has been to the German at the end of a race this year. Webber admitted that he ‘felt very strong at the start of the stints, not too strong at the end of the stints’ after the race, allowing us to understand the increasing gap to race winner Alonso.

A disappointing weekend for McLaren saw the squad take home just 12 points, its lowest haul of the season coming on home soil. Studying Hamilton’s race in detail, the 2008 Champion’s storming start eventually worked against him, with the team deliberately underfueling his MP4-26 in the expectation that he would be held up during the first stint. Quick progress from the Briton highlighted his raw speed and, despite a couple of small errors, second place on his pit board could be seen by Lap 28. 

It was a very strong tyre performance from Hamilton, on a day which required an instinctive feel for the ever-changing grip levels. If it wasn’t for a fuel saving phase in the final stages, the 15-time Grand Prix victor could have grabbed the final step on the podium in front of his home crowd, if not the runner-up spot. Another man who had the potential to make the rostrum is team-mate Jenson Button, whose race was not only hampered by a pit-stop blunder, but ended by one.

The Frome driver was the first of the top ten runners to pit for dry rubber on Lap 11, slowly building up his speed throughout the race with two much stronger phases on the Option compound. After closing the gap to the cars ahead, Button was in prime position to challenge the Red Bull cars ahead. However, a premature pit lane release saw him retire with a loose right-front wheel, later commenting: "I stayed out for one more lap and I think I would have come out alongside, or even ahead of, Mark after the stop."

An explanation for this increase in pace prior to his retirement would be Button’s ability to extract more tyre performance in the closing stages, without as much of a need as team-mate Hamilton to save fuel. His progress came to an abrupt end, however, leaving him to face retirement number one of the season and come to terms with dropping from second to fifth in the Drivers’ Championship.

Two men who executed the second strategy option extremely successfully were Nico Rosberg and Sergio Pérez, with the pair taking home strong points finishes at the end of the day courtesy of two-stop plans. Beginning with Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg, after a slow start and difficult opening phase on the Intermediate compound, the German fought back well and unleashed the true potential of his car on the Soft rubber.

In his direct battle with Pérez, it can be clearly seen via the GPUpdate.net tyre analysis chart that Rosberg utilised the undercut in order to cement his position. By pitting two laps before the 2010 GP2 runner-up he was able to control the battle and hold the gap in the final stint of the race, with Pérez later admitting that "Unfortunately I couldn’t overtake Nico - I was very close but he was too fast on the straights."

A little further behind, one more stand-out top ten performance came from Spain’s Jaime Alguersuari, with the Toro Rosso pilot making the points for the third race in succession. A storming drive from 18th on the grid saw him take tenth at the finish line, adapting well to the changeable conditions to make progress, before backing up his speed with two strong Option stints which consisted of 19 and 21 laps respectively.

An early double-retirement for Team Lotus left Virgin to inherit the lead at the back of the grid, with the Hispania drivers in turn a little further down the order. HRT boss Colin Kolles believes the 2011 rubber will take a little bit of getting used to for newcomer Daniel Ricciardo, explaining: "He has to get used to the tyres obviously, this isn’t too easy when you’ve started just one race with new tyres and the others have already thousands of kilometres under their belts."

The Formula 1 paddock is now preparing for its first visit to the iconic Nürburgring venue since 2009 - a Grand Prix dominated by Red Bull’s Mark Webber despite receiving a debatable drive-through penalty. Will it be time for his first win of the year, can team-mate Vettel get back on the top step or will Alonso extend Ferrari’s authority amid further blown diffuser speculation?

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View GPUpdate.net's In-depth Tyre Analysis chart for the 2011 British GP
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Some key facts uncovered at Silverstone:
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- Sebastian Vettel and Felipe Massa were the last men to change from Intermediate to Option tyres, pitting on Lap 13

- Renault driver Vitaly Petrov completed the longest Option tyre stint (27 laps)

- Eight out of the 19 finishers opted for three stops, while 11 pitted twice

- Paul di Resta was the only man to use the Prime compound during the race

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Analysis conducted by GPUpdate.net’s Mike Seymour
Twitter: @MikeSeymourF1

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