After the first three flyway races, we caught up with the team’s Chief Strategist James Vowles to understand the impact that the new Pirelli tyres, the return of KERS and the introduction of DRS have had on his work at the track.
1) After the first set of flyaway races, which race was most challenging from a strategic perspective?
Whilst we have only had three races so far, the one that stands out in terms of the strategic challenge was Melbourne. It was the first time that we had ever been in a race situation with the Pirelli tyres and the first time we were able to see how the car performed compared to the other teams on those tyres. It meant that we had a lot of strategic variables to consider. The race had teams trying everything… one, two, three stops. At some point, we heard that teams even considered doing a fourth stop! In situations like that, it becomes very challenging and you have to react quickly to a lot of information whilst continuously learning about the tyres. Shanghai was also challenging but in a different way. In Shanghai, we had a car that was competing at the front, which adds another level of pressure and, of course, another level of excitement.
2) And the most rewarding race?
Without a doubt, that would be Shanghai. We probably had the third fastest car but we led the race thanks to good strategy, pit stops and great driving from Nico. We’re all in Formula One because we’re passionate about it and we all want to win races. It’s why we live and breathe the sport and what we did in Shanghai was to be a part of that. We didn’t complete it, we had some problems and we know about that, but the point is that we were fighting at the front and that’s what we are all working towards.
“When you start using a tyre the wrong way, it’s not just tenths you lose, it’s seconds.”
3) We have new tyres this year with Pirelli… what have you learnt so far? Have the tyres become the most important performance factor in Formula One?
The tyres, at the moment, represent the most important single item on the car. The aerodynamics help push the tyres to the ground and mechanical devices help to balance the load on the tyres. So the tyres have always been one of the most important items and how you use them is very important. This year represents a whole new learning curve because we’ve all been used to the Bridgestone tyres for a number of years, which worked in a particular way.
The difference with the Pirellis is that they react differently depending on the circuit in question, the type of track it is, the corners, the environment and the way the drivers treat and look after them. They are not the sole factor that dictates performance – aerodynamics obviously remain incredibly important - but it is a fair assessment to say that the tyres have become more important than in previous years. When you start using a tyre the wrong way, it’s not just tenths that you lose, it’s seconds.
4) KERS is back this year and we also have the introduction of DRS. How do these systems impact your work at the track?
The great thing about racing this season is that there has been so much overtaking and there’s a real dynamic situation going on during the races. The DRS is definitely a benefit, as is KERS. They do bring a certain element of challenge and confusion to the performance considerations. It’s hard to know what different teams are doing, particularly with regard to KERS, and the lap time differential can sometimes be measured in whole seconds. It becomes more difficult to track the performance of other teams over a race weekend.
The other factor is that there is a lot more for the drivers to do while they are actually driving the car. It’s our job to help them optimise the systems and their operation perfectly, so we’re constantly talking over the radio during the sessions and working with them back at the factory, using tools such as the simulator.
“Turkey should be similar to Shanghai. You’re going to see a mix of different strategies and a lot of stops …”
5) Turkey is next on the calendar… how challenging is strategy at the Istanbul Park Circuit?
First of all, it is worth pointing out that we have had three races so far and no safety car periods: that’s unusual. In races with so many overtaking moves and so many cars running close to each other, you normally expect safety car periods. Turkey isn’t a venue where there is a high probability of a safety car, mainly because of the layout and the big run-off areas, so I don’t think that will be a significant part of the strategic equation. We haven't yet had a wet race in Turkey, so we would normally expect it to be dry, although the race is a few weeks earlier this year and the current weather forecasts suggest conditions will be cooler and more unstable than we are used to.
What’s really different in Turkey is the fact that the track is anti-clockwise and it also has a very unique corner layout with Turns 7, 8 and 9. This year, what we have seen is cars using the tyres in a different way, and that might come more into play in Turkey because of that corner layout. In terms of strategy, until we really get there, and see how the tyres perform on Friday, we can only make predictions about what we are going to do during the race. My feeling is that we are going to see a similar situation to Shanghai. You’re going to see a mix of different strategies and a lot of stops. It’s going to be interesting… as always!