2011: That was the year that was

By on Friday, December 23, 2011

Looking back at the 2011 Formula One Season

Sebastian Vettel took 11 wins, 15 poles and wrapped up his second title in Japan. Photo credit: Red Bull GEPA

2011 may not have had the intense title fight of the year before, but anyone who analysed pre-season testing could see that it would be a case of ‘when, not if’ for Sebastian Vettel. After all, our season preview was named ‘Catch me if you can’ for that very reason. It was going to be difficult for anyone to catch Vettel in 2011.

2011 began with several unchanged line-ups, as the top 5 teams stuck with their drivers from 2010. Force India replaced Vitantonio Liuzzi with Paul di Resta, meaning that the Italian had to seek refuge at HRT. Williams signed Pastor Maldonado in place of Nico Hulkenberg and Sauber took on Sergio Perez. Virgin showed Lucas di Grassi the door and welcomed Jerome d’Ambrosio, with Narain Karthikeyan joining HRT after a 5 year absence from F1 racing.

Robert Kubica led the testing before his rally accident

Sadly for Renault, and for the F1 community, Robert Kubica suffered serious injury in a rally accident in February and missed the entire season. He was initially replaced by Nick Heidfeld and later Bruno Senna as the team looked ahead to an uncertain season after the promise of topping the first pre-season test. Kubica’s loss was a bitter blow after a rebuilding season in 2010 for the beleaguered squad. News of Kubica often dogged the team in 2011 as tensions rose between Eric Bouiller, Renault team principle, and Danielli Morelli, Kubica’s manager.

Hamilton and Button each took three wins, although it was the latter who enhanced his reputation ©Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

Testing in Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona indicated that Red Bull and Ferrari were out front, with Mercedes and McLaren in crisis. While Mercedes rescued their W02 with a last minute update, McLaren headed to the opening race of the season without having completed a full race distance, courtesy of reliability problems and slow pace. On the eve of the season, the team abandoned their advanced ‘octopus’ exhaust and headed to Melbourne fearing the worst. Despite a disastrous pre-season, their pace was promising and they ended the season second in the championship with six wins: three apiece for Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

Heading to Melbourne for the opening race was also unexpected until news broke at the end of February of political uprising in Bahrain. The GP2 Asia race was cancelled and paddock members quickly flown home and protesters promised that they would disrupt the race. Eventually, the race was postponed and another test held. The event was rescheduled for later in the season, but later abandoned as the unrest continued and teams made it clear that they would not accept a season running into December.

Team Lotus was involved in a legal battle with Group Lotus. Photo credit: Pirelli & C. S.p.A.

Another controversy throughout the season was the naming row surrounding Lotus. Renault, who was sponsored by Group Lotus to become Lotus Renault GP, claimed that Tony Fernandes was using the Lotus moniker without having the right to. The case was settled in court, with Team Lotus allowed to keep their name. However, the issue was resolved when Tony Fernandes announced that his team would become Caterham, after he acquired the brand during the season. Lotus Renault GP therefore took the Lotus name for 2012, while Virgin also announced they would become Marussia.

At Silverstone, the row over blown diffusers came to a head, with teams each claiming different interpretations as to what or wasn’t allowed. Tensions rose during a press conference involving Red Bull’s Christian Horner and McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh and neither side agreed with what should be done. The FIA reverted back to their original rules at the German Grand Prix, although it gained significant criticism for mid-season rule changes and the confusion that came with them.

These things helped the racing in 2011...

Away from politics, the start of 2011 saw some of the best racing in a long time. Although Sebastian Vettel opened up a huge lead courtesy of winning six of the opening eight races, there was action left and right thanks to a number of new innovations. The Kinetic Energy Recover System (KERS) was re-introduced, while the Drag Reduction System (DRS) enabled drivers to open their rear wing if they were within a second of their rivals. The advancement of diffusers meant that the slipstreaming effect so prominent throughout the history of F1 had been diminished. Therefore while the DRS was artificial, it enabled drivers to overtake without significant problems. The DRS was not without its critics as some claimed that drivers waited for the DRS zone and just drove by, rather than risking an accident through outbraking a rival. The success of the DRS varied race by race, as some zones enabled overtaking without it being a formality, while others – such as in Turkey and Canada – saw too many easy passes.

While figures will vary, it is estimated by the Official F1 website that DRS accounted for 45.5% of overtakes in 2011. The DRS was most prominent in Abu Dhabi (89 percent of overtakes), Valencia (81 percent), India (78 percent), Turkey (59 percent) and Spain (57 percent). DRS was least effective in Monaco (13 percent), Hungary (20 percent), Canada (22 percent), Japan (26 percent) and Britain (27 percent), though three of these races featured wet or mixed conditions, and use of DRS was restricted for portions of the race in Canada. When DRS was used in Canada, many felt it was too easy.

India joined the calendar. Photo credit: Sahara Force India

However, despite KERS and DRS, the biggest praise was reserved for Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli, who replaced Japanese counterparts Bridgestone after they pulled out at the end of 2010. Last season, drivers fairly regularly pitted just once, leading to processional races. However, the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix saw Bridgestone’s tyres struggle as drivers pitted up to three times. Pirelli’s aim was to create a race like that every time and they succeeded for much of the first half of the season. The Malaysian and Chinese Grand Prix in particular saw differing strategies and high wearing tyres, with lap times quite often dropping off very quickly. As the teams learnt more about the tyres and Pirelli adopted a more conservative approach, the racing was frequently calmer, with 2 stop strategies becoming the norm.

India joined the F1 calendar at the end of October, although the race was held in sombre circumstances following the deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli. Indians welcomed the sport, although the inaugural race was best remembered for the reaction of Rowan Atkinson to yet another collision between Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa rather than the racing itself.

Sebastian Vettel’s luck eventually ran out in Abu Dhabi, although he ended the season with a staggering 394 points. Ferrari and McLaren will hope to fight back in 2012, although it’s highly probable that Vettel will be adding a third world title to his collection.

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