Grand Prix notebook

Monaco, Canada & Austria

Rd 6 Monte Carlo, May 25 2014
1 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 49min 27.661sec
2 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 49min 36.871sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull RB10 – 1hr 49min 37.275sec

Fastest lap: Kimi Räikkönen – Ferrari F14 T – 1min 18.479sec
Race distance: 78 laps, 161.879 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1min 15.989sec

Rd 7 Montréal, June 8 2014
1 Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull RB10 – 1hr 39min 12.830sec
2 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 39min 17.066sec
3 Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull RB10 – 1hr 39min 18.077sec

Fastest lap: Felipe Massa – Williams FW36 – 1min 18.504sec
Race distance: 70 laps, 189.686 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1min 14.874sec

Rd 8 Spielberg, June 22 2014
1 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 27min 54.976sec
2 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 27min 56.908sec
3 Valtteri Bottas – Williams FW36 – 1hr 28min 03.148sec

Fastest lap: Sergio Pérez – Force India VJM07 – 1min 12.142sec
Race distance: 71 laps, 190.773 miles
Pole position: Felipe Massa – Williams FW36 – 1min 08.759sec

In the exclusively Mercedes driver fight for the world championship, the three-race sequence from Monaco to Austria turned things decisively in Nico Rosberg’s favour and away from Lewis Hamilton. The latter came to Monaco narrowly leading the points table as his fourth consecutive victory in Spain had finally overcome the disadvantage incurred by his retirement in the first race. But after Monaco, Canada and Austria played out he was even more distant than he had been in Australia, when he’d retired and Rosberg won. In the middle of this sequence, in Montréal, we had a double breakthrough – the first non-Mercedes victory of the year as Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo took his first F1 victory.

With two front-rank drivers in the only car capable of winning the title, things were always going to get tense in the Mercedes garages. It had started in Bahrain when Rosberg, in his late efforts at trying to pass his team-mate, had used a more aggressive engine map than Hamilton had been allowed. Hamilton had retaliated by doing the same as he fended off Rosberg in Barcelona. But the tension was increased immeasurably in Monaco by Nico’s off at Mirabeau during his final qualifying run. The yellow flags obliged the following Hamilton to back off, denying him the chance of bettering Rosberg’s first-run time. With Rosberg’s off having apparently secured him pole – particularly vital around the streets of Monte Carlo – there was lively debate about whether it had been simply an over-commitment or a deliberate foul. The stewards ruled in favour of the former, but there were plenty convinced otherwise – Hamilton predictably among their number.

Whatever the truth, that incident was probably even more significant than just paving the way for Rosberg’s second consecutive Monaco victory. It was difficult not to ponder if the Monaco outcome had disturbed Hamilton’s competitive state of mind, as he over-drove during his final qualifying runs in both Canada and Austria.

Errors in all four of Hamilton’s Q3 runs in those two races essentially lost him a likely pole position on each occasion. As he then sought to use a more aggressive energy setting in his efforts at closing in on Rosberg around the stops at Montréal, so it caused him to suffer a terminal mechanical problem – no brakes – that forced his retirement.

Rosberg brilliantly managed a similar problem to take second to Ricciardo and thereby put himself a long way clear of Hamilton on points, which almost certainly triggered Hamilton into over-striving even further in Austria. As Rosberg continued to apply himself without error, so he took another crucial victory, this time at the re-invented Austrian venue once known as the Österreichring.

Monaco

Hamilton’s moody threat that he might deal with Rosberg the way Senna had dealt with Prost – when the Brazilian had his rival off the track into the first corner, Suzuka 1990 – was no more than heat-of-the-moment froth. Rosberg was into an uncontested lead in the short run to Ste Dévote, Hamilton meekly in his tracks.

As the two Mercs quickly pulled away from the field upon the resumption of racing, after a first-lap safety car, so a game of tactical chess seemed to be unfolding on the Mercedes pit wall. Striving to make opportunities absolutely equal between two drivers fighting only each other for the sport’s biggest prize, for this one-stop race it was impossible to use the tyre compound offset previously used in the two-stop Bahrain and Spain events. The driver ahead – Rosberg, in this case – had strategic call and was therefore even more powerful. But which would actually be the better strategy – to pit before your rival or after? Usually the advantage is with the driver pitting first, as he gets out on his fresh, fast rubber while the other guy is making his in-lap on worn-out old tyres. But so conservative are the 2014 Pirellis that even the raciest possible combination of super-soft/soft used here proved very under-stressed. Which in turn meant that the new rubber would not necessarily reach its full working temperature on the out-lap, so the old tyres on the car stopping a lap later might actually still be faster. Mercedes was desperate to be seen to be playing fair by giving Rosberg strategic preference – his right, as the driver ahead – but had no way of definitively knowing the better strategy!

After careful analysis, Merc had decided that the overcut – stopping later than your rival – was more likely to be the way to go and was therefore planning to bring Hamilton in first. But when might that be? Even the super-soft was very durable around an overcast Monaco and such was the Mercs’ advantage over the field – they were soon 12sec clear of the fast-starting Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen – that there were complicating factors to consider; they were easily far enough clear that they were not going to be challenged by another team if they stopped a lap or so later than ideal. It was going to be a case of Hamilton – knowing he was coming in first – trying to stay out as long as possible in order that Rosberg would wear his tyres out and be unable to respond on his in-lap to Hamilton’s out-lap pace (if he could somehow get his fresh rubber switched on). Lewis’s crew was trying to induce Rosberg into making the undercut work. The longer Lewis stayed out – essentially forcing Rosberg to stay out, too – the better Hamilton’s chances of jumping ahead at the stops. It was all building into a fascinating scenario.

But it didn’t get to play out that way. Instead, Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber, bouncing off the barriers after getting out of shape over the crest as he prepared to brake for the chicane. With the damaged car immovable, the safety car was deployed for the second time. This happened in the pit stop window – making everyone’s decisions on the timing of stops for them. Hamilton actually considered coming in even before the safety car had been sent out, having passed the scene of the accident only 10sec or so after it had happened. But he was told to stay out. Mercedes brought in both cars on the first safety car lap, stacking Hamilton behind as Rosberg was attended. That, essentially, was that; a crucial victory to Rosberg.

Räikkönen’s race was ruined by him suffering a puncture on his fresh tyres, after Max Chilton’s Marussia sliced by as he was un-lapping himself behind the safety car. Forced to stop again with the whole field bunched behind the safety car, Räikkönen was down near the back. This promoted Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull into third and in the race’s late stages the RB10 came alive and he was slicing into Hamilton’s advantage. It was all Lewis could do to keep it behind, this in turn allowing Rosberg a relatively relaxed run to the flag and a restored championship lead.

Canada

Adrian Newey was leaving F1 at the end of the year. That was the big news coming into the Montréal weekend. The design genius had been dissuaded from joining Ferrari on a mega salary (the contract had already been drawn up, around Barcelona time) by a contra offer from Red Bull that allowed him to concentrate on other projects he has long yearned to do. While the F1 team would be losing his skills, at least it meant that talent would not be applied against them. He remains in charge of the 2015 RB11, but once that’s completed he will essentially be gone from F1 after a glittering career with Leyton House, Williams, McLaren and Red Bull.

It was ironic then that this should produce Red Bull’s first victory of the year – thanks to a Mercedes technical problem that hit the cars of Rosberg and Hamilton, and a great drive from Daniel Ricciardo. But if Ricciardo’s performance was impressive, what of Rosberg’s? He drove minus the ERS system’s 160bhp for the last 33 laps and only lost the lead to Ricciardo two from the end. It was a brilliant performance and the points it garnered could prove decisive on a day when Hamilton was forced to retire.

Rosberg’s weekend really got going during final qualifying when, against expectations, he grabbed pole at what has always been a Lewis Hamilton track. No team-mate had ever got to within 0.3sec of Lewis around here, such is his silky, high-momentum, wall-shaving way. It had looked all weekend as if it would be a similar story again, as he retained a consistent margin of advantage. But the Merc didn’t like the softer tyre (the super soft) and was the only car graining its fronts over a single lap. Other cars were finding 1sec of lap time from its softer compound, but the Mercs only about half of that. That still wasn’t enough to put them under threat, but it did make the W05 a potentially tricky car from which to access its full performance. On their first Q3 runs Rosberg’s calmly methodical approach produced a good, tidy lap while Lewis lost time after locking one of those graining fronts. Into their second runs Rosberg shaved a little more time while Hamilton tried yet harder – and this time locked up twice. Rosberg was on pole at ‘Hamilton’s track’. In terms of the momentum of the championship contest, this was a beautiful bit of timing from Nico.

The pole allowed Rosberg to retain the lead despite a slower start than the sister Mercedes and, as Hamilton got slightly on the grass to avoid contact, so Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull nipped through for second. Hamilton quickly used DRS to dispose of the interloper, but dealing with Rosberg was going to be a bigger challenge. Hamilton generally stayed within the wheel tracks of his team-mate during the short first stint on the problematical super-soft. They were separated by a couple of seconds after each had made their first stops. But now on the more durable option (soft) tyre, Hamilton was much quicker. On consecutive laps he took 0.9sec, 0.5sec and 0.6sec from Rosberg to be sitting on his tail. But passing an identical car, while looking after very marginal brakes, was not going to be feasible. Montréal’s fast straight/slow corner combination has always been tough on brakes. The reduced rear brakes of the 2014 cars (with much of the braking being done by the torque reversal upon the rear axle of the ERSk, teams fitted smaller, lighter and less aerodynamically disruptive discs) made this a more marginal exercise than ever. The carbon discs oxidise quickly if allowed to get much beyond 800-deg C for any period of time, so both drivers were instructed to alter their brake bias accordingly, putting more on the front. Rosberg naturally prefers a more forward-biased setting than Hamilton, who can more easily live with the entry oversteer a rear-biased set-up tends to induce. But for Montréal, both were forwards of where they would naturally be on a more conventional track.

As the second stops loomed, the drivers were told to move further forward on bias as the rears were becoming too hot. Rosberg complied, Hamilton – sensing a chance to jump ahead at the stops – did not. That turned out to be a bad decision for Lewis. The team could see worryingly high temperatures in the electronic power control pack – the duration of electrical energy deployment down these long straights was such that these electrical packs were running way outside their natural temperature parameters. Eventually – on lap 36 for Hamilton, early on lap 37 for Rosberg – the electrics burned out and hence power supply to the ERSk ceased. The first the drivers knew of it was when they felt the effect of an immediate loss of the battery’s 160bhp. But more seriously still, it meant that all the rear braking was now being done by the discs, without any help from torque reversal upon the axle. This in turn meant that the higher disc temperatures on Hamilton’s car – because he had earlier ignored the request to change the bias setting – led to total rear brake failure as the discs simply oxidised into thin air. Rosberg’s by contrast were just far enough from the meltdown threshold that he was able to keep them alive. With Hamilton out, Rosberg now had 38 laps to survive, trying to hang on at the front in a crippled car.

He did it brilliantly. He was helped by the Force Indias having opted for a one-stop race, which put Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg into second and third places, forming a protective buffer for Rosberg by keeping the faster cars (the Red Bulls and Williams FW36s, principally) off his back. Helped in this way, he adapted his driving and was always able to keep himself far enough ahead at the DRS detection point that Pérez could not get to deploy the wing-stalling device. Eventually, the Red Bulls got past the Force Indias. Ricciardo had leapfrogged Vettel at the second stops with a brilliantly fast in-lap (Vettel’s in-lap pace having been dictated by the Force India ahead of him) and once past Pérez was able to close on the Mercedes and pass it with two laps to go. Felipe Massa was flying in the late stages and trying to pass Pérez for fourth when they touched at about 170mph on the approach to Turn One. Remarkably, neither was hurt in two sizeable impacts. The stewards blamed Pérez.

Austria

The venue that was once the Österreiching became the shorter A1-Ring and is now the Red Bull Ring. A new pit complex has been built and run-off areas had been upgraded, but the track is essentially that last used by F1 in 2003. Its short duration and layout made it demanding of electronic power packs (as at Montréal). The three short straights come one after another, forming long duration deployment of the ERS with not much chance to cool for the rest of the lap. It made this a race of very tight control for Mercedes and Williams, the two cars fighting out its destiny. The track is also unconventional in how it rewards low drag and is less punishing of low downforce than conventional circuits. This allowed Williams (light on downforce but consequently low in drag) to be much more competitive than usual – and also left Red Bull out of the ballpark.

Just as in Canada, Hamilton made errors on both his Q3 runs. His first was disallowed as he’d crossed the track limits. The second was not completed, as he spun at Turn Two. Yellow flags forced Rosberg to back off – and created a perfect window of opportunity for Williams. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas took full advantage to give the team its first front row lock-out in 11 years. Rosberg would be starting third, Hamilton ninth.

Despite its grid positions, Williams came into this race determined not to compromise its strategy in trying to fight a faster Mercedes. But actually, it wasn’t much faster – 0.3sec at best. Nonetheless Williams was strategically conservative, just as it had been in Canada, and a winnable race was arguably lost each time. Both Mercedes and Williams needed to manage their cars on electrical power usage and front brakes, but in addition the Williams was hard on rear tyres (particularly that of Massa, who led from Bottas throughout the opening stint). The Mercs were on their tails after Hamilton drove a great first lap.

With its tyre concerns, Williams didn’t feel it could respond to the early first stops of Mercedes, as it might have left them with no tyre life later in the race. Consequently Rosberg jumped to the front at the first stops, Hamilton to second at the next ones – and that’s where they stayed, with Bottas taking his first podium not far behind.

Massa was too hard on the tyres for victory to have been possible, but Bottas’s discarded rubber suggested he might just have been able to manage a Mercedes-matching strategy, in which case he could theoretically have won. Williams has not yet rediscovered the confidence of a front-rank team...

Close to the edge
Turn 5, Montréal

Wild things run free up at Montreal’s Turn Five, a right-hand kink that used just to be a bent piece of straight but which in the 2014 car is a significant event. The narrow strip of track is surrounded on one side by concrete walls, on the other by metal barriers.

Beyond each are overhanging trees and the branches sway in the turbulence of each passing car, a more disturbed airflow than before, now that everything’s no longer zipped up and heading for the diffuser. The reduced downforce and multiplied torque demand full accuracy and concentration and the tighter that wall can be clipped the less work needs to be asked of the car in getting back across to the right hand side of the track in preparation for the braking zone of the tight left-hander that follows. This used to be an almost zero effort process in the exhaust-enhanced diffuser cars. Now even the best ones look a handful. The Mercs are coming through visibly faster than anything else, Lewis Hamilton’s right-front wheel hooked inside the white line delineating the edge of the track and threatening to kiss the white-painted wall with black Pirelli sidewall.

Daniel Ricciardo and Adrian Sutil are similarly thread-the-needle precise. With the sound waves bouncing off the walls and trees, the hybrid engines sound aggressively guttural even if the volume is only moderate. But what these cars lack in volume, they make up for in spades with visual drama.