Sunday, April 19, 2009

Scattered Slippery Spots

Formula 1 racing may be the only major sport in which the quality of the product is actually enhanced by inclement weather. Certainly other sports (notably scrimmage football) can become more interesting, from a standpoint of narrative drama, when conditions are poor. But a wet track--such as that which obtained during today's Grand Prix of China, run in persistent falling rain--not only puts a higher premium on driver skill but also complicates technical decision making. How does starting under a safety car affect the critical calculations of fuel consumption? When is the "dry line" that eventually appears on the track dry enough to attempt to run on something besides the full-wet tires? (The answer today was "never", as Nico Rosberg found out).

Twenty-one-year-old Sebastian Vettel won today's race from pole position, under conditions that were no doubt hell on the drivers but produced an intriguing and thrilling race. It was the first GP win for Vettel's Red Bull team (and his teammate, Mark Webber, finished second) and it was well-deserved. At one point during the race the engineering crew for Jensen Button (who had won the previous two races this season, and finished third today for the Brawn GP team) radioed their driver and assured him that Vettel's quick pace was due solely to his light fuel load. Vettel's performance put the lie to this assertion--through fifty-plus laps of treacherous driving that saw previous world champions like Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso careening right and left, he didn't make a single wrong move. The Red Bull team could not be blamed if they were to pray for rain at each event remaining in the F1 season.

Such conditions are of course deeply unlikely for next week's Bahrain Grand Prix. Need the rest of the field--particularly the Brawn team, unbeatable until this week behind the strength of their controversial aerodynamic design--fear Vettel in the Middle-Eastern dust as well as the Chinese rain? We'll find out next weekend.

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