F1 2011 Season Review Part 3: Blown Diffusers Exhaust Fans


Always the same person winning? Four consecutive races at the mid-point of 2011 had four different victors  - Photo Credits: Paul Gilham/Getty Images; Ferrari; Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Always the same person winning? Four consecutive races at the mid-point of 2011 had four different victors - Photo Credits: Paul Gilham/Getty Images; Ferrari; Vodafone McLaren Mercedes


After the fantastic race in Canada, anything that followed was going to have to pull something spectacular out of the bag to be even half as exciting. Unfortunately, that next race was the European Grand Prix in Valencia.

Before this season's grand prix, the only interesting thing to happen at a grand prix in Valenica was Mark Webber becoming airborne after driving over the back of Heikki Kovalainen in 2010. After the race in June of this year, that incident was still the only interesting thing to happen at a grand prix in Valencia. Not even the combination of Pirelli, KERS and DRS could do anything to generate some excitement on this sterile street circuit.

Sebastian Vettel took pole position, the race win, and set the fastest lap, whilst Fernando Alonso came second and Webber came third. Vettel now had 186 points from a possible 200, and was 77 points ahead of Jenson Button and team-mate Webber, who each had 109.

A couple of notable things did come out of that unremarkable race though. Firstly, it set the record for the greatest number of finishers at an F1 grand prix as all 24 runners made it to the checkered flag. Also, an argument about off-throttle blown diffusers, which had been bubbling under for a few races now, came to head that weekend.

The off-throttle blown diffuser, employed by most teams but executed best of all by Red Bull, involved engine mappings that burned fuel even whilst the driver was not on the throttle, allowing exhaust gasses to be blown over the diffuser, giving the car greater downforce when cornering. Obviously, this is not the most  environmentally friendly of aerodynamic aids and the FIA tried to stifle the practice by insisting that, in Valencia, the teams use the same engine mapping for qualifying and the race. They went one step further at the next race – the British Grand Prix – by limiting the practice much more heavily.

Before the teams got to Silverstone though, there were a few announcements to be made. Williams, who by this stage had scored only four points – 80% of the number that they would achieve in the whole of 2011 – announced that they would be ditching engine supplier Cosworth at the end of the season, and reforming their historically successful partnership with Renault.

Last time Williams partnered with Renault, there were winning races on a regular basis - here Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz Harald Frentzen lead into the first corner of the 1997 European Grand Prix in Jerez - Photo Credit: LAT Photographic/Williams F1
Last time Williams partnered with Renault, they were winning races on a regular basis - here Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen lead into the first corner of the 1997 European Grand Prix in Jerez - Photo Credit: LAT Photographic/Williams F1

 

HRT, who had secured a thirteenth place finish with Vitantonio Liuzzi in Canada, and now sat above Virgin Racing in the constructors' championship, announced that they had new Spanish owners. In a separate development, Red Bull young driver Daniel Ricciardo replaced Narain Karthikeyan at the team at Silverstone, and for rest of the season, as part of a deal with the team leading the championship.

It was hoped that the new rules on off-throttle blown diffusers might do something about the dominance of Red Bull. The team clearly thought it would: Christian Horner and Adrian Newey had faces like thunder throughout the practice and qualifying sessions. Despite this, the team still managed to lock out the front row with Mark Webber taking his second pole position of the season.

Ferrari seemed fairly quiet over the whole diffuser controversy, with Team Principal Stefano Domenicali refusing to give an opinion on the ban in Silverstone. The reason for this apparent ambivalence soon became apparent on the Sunday at Silverstone when Fernando Alonso took his one and only victory of 2011. Red Bull did manage to bodge Vettel's second stop, which allowed the Spaniard to get in front of him, but Alonso clearly had the faster car as he went on to pull out a huge gap over the German, finishing the race 16.5 seconds ahead. On a weekend in which Ferrari were celebrating 60 years in Formula 1, this was the ideal result for the team.

There was a bit of controversy on the penultimate lap of the race as Webber tried an overtaking move that did not stick on his struggling team-mate. The Red Bull pit wall, clearly scared of recording a needless double DNF, quickly ordered their Australian driver to hold position.

The British Grand Prix this season was the first F1 race that used the new Silverstone 'Wing', but Lewis Hamilton was the highest place Brit, finishing fourth - Photo Credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
The British Grand Prix this season was the first F1 race that used the new Silverstone 'Wing', but Lewis Hamilton was the highest place Brit, finishing fourth - Photo Credit: Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

 

There was a non-finish for Jenson Button, whose McLaren team failed to fit the right-front tyre properly at a pit stop. His home race was brought to a halt at the end of the brand-new Silverstone pit-lane, in a car with just three wheels.

Lewis Hamilton had a better race at Silverstone. He had a great battle with Felipe Massa (who else?) during the final couple of laps, eventually taking fourth place off the Brazilian in a robust move that involved plenty of banged wheels and bodywork.

After many complaints about the illegitimacy of the mid-season rule change around off-throttle blown diffusers, most of which probably came from Red Bull, although McLaren also had a decent system on their car, the FIA decided to go back to the Valenica regulations at the next race in Germany.

The weekend in Germany began with a particularly strange story about drivers breaching regulations, but this had nothing to do with any sort of diffuser. Bizarrely, scrutineering revealed that seven drivers did not have the FIA label properly stitched onto their overalls, and instead the required logo was only screen-printed. Of course, this matter was quickly rectified, but it did lead to plenty of good puns and some plays on words during the build-up to the weekend.

Fernando Alonso had to park his Ferrari after crossing the finish line in Germany, but luckily Mark Webber was on hand to give him a lift back to the podium - Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Fernando Alonso had to park his Ferrari after crossing the finish line in Germany, but luckily Mark Webber was on hand to give him a lift to the podium ceremony - Photo Credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images

The extremely cold race at the Nürburgring saw Vettel have what was probably his worst weekend of the season. He failed to qualify on the front row for the first time all year – Mark Webber took a second-successive pole position and Lewis Hamilton started alongside him on the front row after a mightily impressive Q3 lap. Vettel could manage only third. The German then went on to finish his home race in fourth place. But for problem in Felipe Massa's final pit stop, he would have only been fifth.

On race day, Webber made another one of his bad starts, something that was fast becoming a feature of his season. This gave Hamilton the lead early on, but Webber was back to the front after the first round of the pit stops. Hamilton re-took the lead at the second round of stops but Alonso, who stopped late in that stint, came out of his second stop in front. However, Hamilton was determined to take the victory, and pulled off a fantastic move on Alonso around the outside of Turn 2. Impeccable timing by McLaren for Hamilton's switch to the slower medium tyre at the end of the race ensured that the Brit went on to take his second victory of the season.

Two races without a victory for Vettel became three one week later in Hungary, but the German was at least back on the podium in Budapest. However, the weekend was slightly over-shadowed, at least here in the UK, when it was announced that the BBC would only be showing ten races live next season – and that Sky would be the broadcaster channel showing every race live.

The uproar was huge – the BBC's own site featured an avalanche of comments from disappointed and angry fans, and even here at TheCheckeredFlag, the news got a vociferous welcome. It will be interesting to see how many of the people who declared that they would be not be watching any F1 next season actually carry out that threat, although the deal could well mean that the sport loses many casual viewers.

One month on from the announcement, this banner was spotted hanging on a grandstand at Spa - Photo Credit: David Bean
One month on from the Sky announcement, this banner was spotted hanging on a grandstand at Spa - Photo Credit: David Bean

 

Anyway, the F1 teams had more pressing things on their mind. In particular, there was the fact that it was unexpectedly cold in Hungary – a country that is usually pretty hot in July. There were hopes that McLaren and Ferrari would be able to take the challenge to Red Bull once again, just as they had in the chilly conditions at the Nürburgring.

Hamilton was fastest in both FP1 and FP2 on the Friday, and looked to be in with a shout for pole position. However, after Red Bull worked for most of the night to correct the balance of Vettel's car, the German was back at the top of the timesheets in the final practice session and, crucially, took pole position. It was another excellent single-lap display that gave Vettel his eighth pole position of the season in a session where Hamilton looked to have car that could beat the German.

Sunday in Budapest got off to a damp start, with fantastically entertaining GP3 and GP2 races. There was further rain before the start of the F1 race, and the field had to start on intermediate tyres. Hamilton made up for failing to get pole position by overtaking Vettel on the fifth lap and was looking good for a second consecutive win on a drying track before a sudden rain shower caused him to spin.

Button grabbed the chance to take the lead of the race, but Hamilton was determined to make up for his mistake, and the pair swapped positions over the next few laps. Unfortunately, Hamilton then decided to make a stop for intermediate tyres when, as Button showed, there was no need. This cost him two pit stops, one to take on the treaded tyres that offered no speed advantage, and another to switch back to slicks.

To further ruin his chance of winning, stewards then gave Hamilton a drive-through penalty after they deemed that the Brit had re-joined the track in a cavalier fashion after his earlier spin. Replays showed that the manner in which Hamilton spun himself round to face the correct direction did cause Paul di Resta to take evasive action, pushing the Scot onto the grass.

This left Jenson Button to claim his second victory of the season at what was the 200th grand prix of his career and the venue of his first ever F1 win back in 2006. It was another fantastic drive in changeable conditions by Button, and he fully deserved the victory. Vettel took second to further increase his championship lead and Alonso once again impressed by taking third place in his under-performing Ferrari.

Hungary was a fantastic race for fans to watch, full of accidents, mistakes and bizarre incidents. The race, although not quite as dramatic or chaotic as the events in Canada, was still one of the highlights of the season, and was an apt celebration for the 25th anniversary of F1 at the Hungaroring. Paul di Resta took an excellent seventh place for Force India to score his first points since the Malaysian Grand Prix, and Toro Rosso also did an excellent job, with Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari coming home eighth and tenth.

Renault, however, was on a bit of decline after the impressive start they had made to the season. Vitaly Petrov could only finish twelfth in Budapest whilst those in the grandstand at the first corner (which included me at this particular race) will know exactly what happened to Nick Heidfeld that afternoon. We were made to jump about ten foot in the air (a minor exaggeration) when the sidepod of his Renault exploded.

Nick Heidfeld's Renault caught fire in Hungary, as seen from the first corner grandstand - Photo Credit: David Bean
Nick Heidfeld's Renault caught fire in Hungary, as seen from the first corner grandstand - Photo Credit: David Bean

 

The German, who was actually competing in his final race of the 2011 season, made a fast exit from the car when he realised it on fire, but the marshals trying to extinguish the flames got a nasty shock, and luckily were not injured, when the explosion followed.

There were more chaotic scenes down at Virgin Racing when driver Jerome D'Ambrosio managed to spin round as he tried to enter his pit box. Luckily, he somehow managed not to hit any of his pit crew.

After the Hungarian Grand Prix, Formula 1 began its four week summer holiday. The tradition mid-season report cars came out (including ours) and there was still tiny glimmer of hope that Vettel's march to a second consecutive title may have been faltering. He had gone three races without a win, and Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and, to a lesser extent, Lewis Hamilton, looked as though they might just be able to mount a late challenge, or at least make Vettel wait a bit to pick up his second title. His championship lead was 'only' 85 points; there were still eight races to go after all…