Grand Prix notebook: Canada and Austria 2015

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Rd 7 Montréal, June 7 2015
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 31min 53.145sec
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 31min 55.430sec
3. Valtteri Bottas Williams FW37 1hr 32min 33.811sec

Fastest lap: Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari SF15-T 1min 16.987sec
Race distance: 70 laps, 189.67 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 14.393sec

Rd 8 Spielberg, June 21 2015
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 30min 16.930sec
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 30min 25.730sec
3. Felipe Massa Williams FW37 1hr 30min 34.503sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1min 11.235sec
Race distance: 71 laps, 190.77 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 08.455sec

These were the two races that, last year, but for over-conservative strategy calls, Williams could have won. The Mercs were vulnerable – and Williams should have been able to pounce. They didn’t. Those calls were risk-averse for two reasons: the operation and confidence levels were being rebuilt by the Pat Symonds-Rob Smedley axis after years of poor performance. Secondly, the risk downside might have threatened a much-needed top-three placing in the constructors championship that had big, maybe crucial, financial implications.

Williams is not yet back to the level of its glory years. With a budget less than half Ferrari’s, how could it be? But Mercedes last year gave it the chance of re-establishing itself at the sharp end, with a well-balanced, low-drag car that had a power advantage over its Ferrari and Renault-engined opposition. But it took time for the team to catch up with the car’s competitiveness. In hindsight the Canada and Austria opportunities came too early last year. By, say, Singapore Williams was again emerging as a team of the front rank, able reliably to maximise whatever hand it had been dealt. That team could probably have won those earlier races.

Into 2015, with essentially a development of the same concept, this more seasoned team has a car that in the first part of the campaign was not quite as competitive. It’s as far behind the works Mercedes as ever, with a resurgent Ferrari now between them. The Red Bull challenge may have faded but the Ferrari one more than overwhelms it. So for the first few races this more savvy Williams had to concentrate on maximising what it had. The fact the team had twice as many constructors points as last year at the equivalent stage, despite a slightly less competitive car, was testimony to how good the operational side of things had become.

Meanwhile it was evolving the FW37 as quickly as it could – but that wasn’t as quick as Ferrari, with the wind tunnel time advantage gifted it by its relationship with the Haas team, which is due to join F1’s ranks next year. Further, the FW36’s low-speed downforce deficit was even worse on this year’s car, as an abysmal Monaco performance confirmed.

In Canada, Montréal’s long straights played to the car’s strengths, even if its slow corners didn’t. Between that race and Austria, the first major aero upgrade would be ready to address that slow corner problem.

Canada

Valtteri Bottas gave Williams its first podium of the year, with a measured drive more than 40sec behind winner Lewis Hamilton at the flag. The result did rather flatter the car’s performance.

Williams got a major break from the various dramas of Ferrari. The faster of the red cars – Sebastian Vettel’s – had to fight its way through the field after a faulty ersH left it near the back of the grid. As for Kimi Räikkönen, he ran third ahead of Bottas until a spin at the hairpin on his out lap gifted Williams the opportunity of pitting its man and getting out ahead of the Ferrari. Bottas is invariably faultless under pressure and he was again here. Räikkönen could find no way past so Ferrari brought Kimi in for another stop, to relaunch a fresh-tyred attack on the Williams late in the race – but he couldn’t quite catch it before the flag fell on one of the most incident-free and dull Montréal races anyone could recall.

Felipe Massa – like Vettel, stuck in Q1 because of an ers malfunction – came through the field with Vettel to finish sixth, one place behind.

Williams had taken points off Ferrari, though not entirely through merit. But it was at least back to competitiveness. Meanwhile, an aero upgrade improving rear-end low-speed downforce was ready for introduction in Austria. But beyond that, this team had some longer-term strategic decisions to make – as Smedley outlined in Canada.

“If we concentrate only on car performance, just carrying on what we are doing will not close the gap to the front,” he said. “To develop the aerodynamic capability, understanding and improving tyre science etc, we have to evaluate certain [financial] decisions that have an element of risk management if we want to close that gap.”

Austria

It was a very different looking FW37 at the Red Bull Ring, with new floor, diffuser, rear wing, brake ducts and guide vanes ahead of the sidepod. The tunnel suggested it was a major step, and hopes were high.

Internally, Williams CEO Mike O’Driscoll had approved a plan to commit resources early to next year’s car, gambling on boosted FOTA income if the team places third again in the constructors championship.

This update therefore will be the biggest the 2015 car will see – so it was crucial it worked well enough to secure that third place. Smedley was still pushing for more. In the Williams motorhome post-qualifying, Sir Frank listened in at Rob’s table. Was Williams a team punching above its weight, Smedley was asked. “No, I think we are punching at our weight. But we could do with putting a few pounds on,” he replied, looking with comedy timing at Sir Frank, who smiled beatifically.

Qualifying showed the Mercs still comfortably fastest, with Lewis Hamilton taking pole from Nico Rosberg. Vettel’s Ferrari was next, narrowly ahead of Massa’s Williams. Bottas had been compromised by yellow flags and was sixth. Of more significance, the aero loadings on the car during dry Friday practice suggested the update was working just as the tunnel suggested it would. It had brought an extra 0.4sec of performance. “This year we reckon Ferrari brings an average of 0.2sec to its car every race,” said Smedley. “By Montréal we were about 0.4sec behind them. This has found us those 0.4sec – but they’ve probably added their usual 0.2sec. So essentially, we’ve halved our deficit.”

The race – won comfortably by Rosberg after he out-accelerated Lewis Hamilton off the line – confirmed that the gap between the red car and Martini-liveried one was much closer than it had been. An increasing distance behind the Mercs, Vettel and Massa ran third and fourth for the first half of the race, the Ferrari establishing a useful 6sec cushion over Felipe. But Williams could barely believe its luck as it watched the Ferrari mechanics struggle to attach Vettel’s right-rear wheel at his pitstop. It cost 10sec – easily enough to allow Massa to be ahead as the Ferrari rejoined.

Vettel had about half the distance left to make up those 4sec. He launched himself into it with vigour, and Massa responded, both cars flat out – often lapping quicker than the cruising Mercs – and the gap was sometimes 0.1sec in Vettel’s favour, sometimes 0.2sec. But never more – the updates had worked. Massa meanwhile was faultless. “I knew he’d catch me eventually because the Ferrari is very good on its tyres late on. But I just went as fast as I could to delay how long it took him to get to me – and once he’d arrived I concentrated on not making any mistakes.” He was Bottas-like unflappable for the last 10 laps, helped by the Williams’ greater end-of-straight speed. Another podium, another defeat of the faster Ferrari – and a closing of the gap to that Ferrari.

In the Massa/Vettel dice could be seen the Ferrari’s advantage: braking and front-end low-speed grip. The FW37’s rear end had been tamed, and now it needs a front end that can keep up. In the Williams tunnel, hopefully ready for Hungary, is a new front wing…

Trackside view
Spielberg, Rindt Kurve

“I’m looking down at the Rindt Kurve, a backdrop of tall firs and lush meadows, their long grass damp underfoot from the Friday morning dew, beautiful contours, constant birdsong as the sun breaks through the clouds. Aside from the artificial grass beyond the garishly-painted exit kerb, it all looks much as it would have when this place first hosted the race in 1970, another lifetime ago.

It needs the current cars to place the corner in its true context and out they come, the Honda’s characteristic part-throttle pop as Button completes an installation lap echoing across the valley like gunfire, bouncing off those big old hills. The track is starting its descent down the valley as the turn begins, creating an initial understeer balance that delays the rear tyres loading up until near the apex, at which point, with a lot of lock applied, the rear slides spectacularly.

The first to demonstrate this is Felipe Massa, his moment creating a ‘whoah’ of appreciation from the onlooking fans standing at the fence. It’s a corner entered at about 120mph in fifth gear for most cars, but Pastor Maldonado’s not ready to accept such a limitation on his first full attack through here, carrying in a speed that the front tyres are never going to accept, and it duly spits him out to the run-off area.

Nico Rosberg then arrives with similar entry speed to Maldonado but that Merc just hunkers down and grips. Thus encouraged next time through, Nico is on the gas a full 10 metres before the apex – and the car catapults out of there. That’s what a great car looks like, but even the Manor is great to watch, Will Stevens floating it in there with oversteer manipulated with his right foot. I watched V10 cars through here back in the day – and they did not look this good.”

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