Formula 1 heads to India for inaugural race at Buddh

Formula 1 widespread growth continues this weekend with the inaugural Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit outside New Delhi. The move to the second most populous country in the world shows once again that while sponsorship has been hard to find in recent years the health and growth of the sport continues unabated.

The locals will have Narain Karthikeyan to cheer on this weekend after the Hispania squad announced that the Indian would return to their line-up for his home race in place of Tonio Liuzzi. With ForceIndiaalso on the grid it is expected that a bumper crowd will be present this weekend.

The Buddh International Circuit

Teams and drivers may not have seen the new circuit in person but they have already racked up thousands of miles in their simulators to have gained baseline figures for gearbox ratios and downforce levels.

It is however only part of the battle to set their cars up. Until they actually drive the circuit there is no chance of knowing just how bumpy and abrasive the track surface will be and the affect that this will have on setup.

While the teams have a huge amount of data already amassed about the circuit-corner radius, straight lengths, etc-there is an amazing amount of crucial information still to learn about the new circuit, as Jenson Button explains:

“The first time you run on a new circuit is a strange experience because you’re piecing together an incredibly diverse and vivid set of data in your mind,” said the former world champion. “That’s quite an intense experience. You’re quickly gathering everything together – constantly assessing the grip-level, watching for unexpected bumps, checking the kerb-height, run-off areas, pitlane entry and exit, gradient. And that all happens at about 170mph!”

The lap opens with right hander that feeds directly into an ever opening left hander that will be little more than acceleration zone for drivers throughout the race but turn four, a hairpin, could lead to problems at the start of the race with drivers jockeying for position before the long back straight that should see speeds in excess of 205 mp/h. It is here that one of the DRS zones will be deployed during Sunday’s race and should provide a great overtaking opportunity.

The middle sector of the lap sees drivers tackle a series of chicanes which lead into one another in a manner similar to a giant bus stop. The final sector starts just before turn ten which looks set to be the most challenging of the circuit. The corner is very open on the way in before gradually tightening on the exit. The challenge for drivers will be to take the first part of the corner as wide as possible so that they can straighten the exit of the corner and keep their speed as fast as possible before entering another fast chicane.

The average lap speed is set to be the second fastest of the year.

Vettel looks to stay at the front while his rivals battle for an edge

World champion Sebastian Vettel has driven the circuit in the simulator and with a high average speed it is clear that this track could play into the hands of his Red Bull team. The German is also excited about the prospect of racing in a new country this weekend:

“By the time we race in India, I’ll have done several laps of the track on the simulator. What I know so far is that the track is 5.14km and in the industrial town of Noida, about 50 minutes by car from New Delhi. The track is a combination of slow corners and high- speed straights which flow into each other. The altitude difference is extreme, rather like in Spa or Turkey, which will give the driving an additional element. Incidentally, we’re expecting the track to have the second highest average speed of the season after Monza. That means that we’ll be completing a lap at an average speed of 235kph, so there should be plenty of good opportunities to overtake. I’m really looking forward to India; I always do when we drive on a new track.”

With Vettel coming toIndiaon the back of four wins in five races it is clear that winning the world championship has done little to dim the competitive fires that have burned so bright in his 2011 title campaign. His performance inKoreashowed just how much he still wants to win races this year and finish the season strongly.

His teammate, Mark Webber, has struggled to match Vettel throughout the season but with three races remaining there is still time for the Australian to save his campaign and finally take his first victory since last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

The circuit should play to Webber’s, and the Red Bull RB7, strengths with high speed corners such as turn ten and eleven sure to allow the car to stretch its aerodynamic advantage over the field. Webber has struggled to match Vettel in slower speed corners this year and while there are some inIndia, notably turn four; this could provide the best opportunity for Webber to get back to his winning ways.

The last race inKoreasaw Red Bull’s stranglehold on qualifying finally come to an end with Lewis Hamilton taking the first non-Red Bull position of the year. The Englishman has endured a miserable summer with a series of race clashes leading to close scrutiny of the former champions lifestyle and mindset.

The race weekend inKoreashowed that he still has time to rescue his season and have a strong finish. By finishing secondHamiltonstopped the rot that had set into his season and finally got the better of Button once more. The intra team battle between the McLaren drivers this weekend will be fascinating with Button looking to bounce back from a poor showing inKoreaandHamiltoneager to show that he can continue his good form.

Ferrari struggled for the majority of the Korean Grand Prix weekend with Alonso only showing good pace in the final stages of the weekend. The Italian team, like all others, will be using the final races of the season as a chance to experiment with new parts and ideas for next season but it is also crucial that they see the benefit of these developments so that they can hit the ground running for next season.

It was heartening to see Felipe Massa battle with Fernando Alonso inKoreabut the Brazilian will know that he needs to beat Alonso over the course of the next three races if he is to continue having the support of his team. The struggles ofMassahave been such that since returning from his Hungarian injuries he has not looked like replicating the form of his 2008 championship runner up season.

The support and goodwill of the team and the tifosi can only last so long and the time is nigh for Massa to start repaying that support or else there is little chance of the likeable Brazilian staying at Ferrari post 2012 when a number of drivers will be available on the drivers market.

Midfield battle in Constructors’ Championship to take centre stage

Renault has all but wrapped up fifth in the Constructors’ Championship but the battle sixth looks set to rage until the final race of the season. ForceIndiacurrently leads Sauber by nine points with Toro Rosso a further three points adrift. A strong result from any of these teams this year would have a huge impact on the standings.

ForceIndiahas been the strongest of these squads for most of the season but Toro Rosso will travel toIndiaon the back of a double points finish for Jamie Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi and the Italian based squad is sure to be competitive once again this weekend.

Sauber struggled inKoreabut the team has claimed to have found the cause of their problems with technical director James Key saying:

“After our performance in Korea was clearly below our own expectations,” commented the Englishman. “We analysed all the data carefully and came to the conclusion that we underestimated the limitation on the front axle and front tyres. As a result we suffered from too much understeer, which resulted in over loading the front tyres.”

The team’s highly rated driver lineup of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez are both looking forward to the new venue and with Perez having spent the weekend working on the Ferrari simulator the Mexican is looking forward to this race and experiencing the energy of racing in a new country:

“I am looking forward to this new track in India,” said Sergio. “It is another unknown circuit for me, but this time it will be new for everybody, so it won’t only be me who has to start from zero. I think the first Indian Grand Prix will be a very exciting event. I have some Indian friends and they keep telling me how emotional everybody is there about it. In any case, it is my goal to make the most out of that race weekend and score points again.”

Unknowns provide setup challenges in India

Any new venue provides challenges for engineers and the Buddh International Circuit will be no different. Williams chief operations engineer, Mark Gallan, spoke of these difficulties:

“The simulations of the new track indicate a high downforce and medium braking severity track, which should also be reasonably hard on the tyres,” said Gallan. “Despite our preparations there are still a few uncertainties, such as what the actual tyre grip will be and how the track will evolve throughout the weekend. We should see over a one second lap time delta between the two tyre choices for this race, namely the soft and hard tyres, with the soft being quicker. We are also expecting dry weather throughout the weekend, with ambient temperatures in the mid-20°Cs to low 30°Cs and track temperatures up in the low 40°Cs.”

F1 2011 revolves on Pirelli tyres

Pirelli will take the soft and hard compounds toIndia. The Italian manufacturer has taken a conservative approach to the tyre allocations but they should provide an exciting strategic dilemma for the teams. This is the first time since Silverstone that we have had this allocation and at other races with the soft and hard compounds there has been a 1.5s to 2s difference between the option and prime tyres.

This will mean drivers will look to limit their time on the prime tyres. The leading drivers will start on options and change to primes as late as possible while we should see a lot of midfield drivers start on the harder rubber and then run the remainder of the race on the faster option tyre.

If there is a safety car this could lead to midfield teams having a strong showing and possibly finding themselves in position to challenge for a top six position such is the difference in lap times between the two compounds.

James Key was keen to discuss tyres in the lead up to this race:

“We will have the soft and the hard tyre compound there,” said the technical director. “It’s quite some time since we ran the hard compound, so we’ll have to see how that goes. A lot depends on track temperatures, but given the nature of the track with several highly loaded corners, it could be that the hard tyre will warm up okay and last. Maybe the soft will struggle, but you never really know until you’re there. On the car we will have some small modifications to the rear wings and some small updates on the front wing.”

Pirelli’s tyres have played a key role in numerous races this year but with the Italian manufacturer taking tyres one step apart to recent races there has been less scope for strategic innovation from teams,Indiashould present that opportunity.

Weather for this weekend

The entire race weekend looks set to be played out under clear blue skies with high temperatures, perfect conditions for racing. The weather should be similar toBarcelonawhere we saw the same compound ranges in use.

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