Grand Prix Notebook

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Monaco, Canada & Europe

It was as if the very tangibility of victory was making the Scuderia nervous, jumpy, trigger-happy. The way this played out at Monaco and Canada just increased the pressure all the more. Questionable tactical calls compounded by the team’s less than full understanding of the mercurial traits of the Pirelli tyres probably cost Sebastian Vettel a podium at Monaco and a likely victory in Montréal. In the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix Vettel took things into his own hands, making a strategy call from the cockpit that turned out to be better than the one his team was trying to make for him.

Concurrently, as if there wasn’t enough mounting tension already, the team’s second driver Kimi Räikkönen had been drastically under-delivering, raising questions about his future beyond this season. He too steadied the ship in Baku with a much more convincing performance than in Monaco and Montréal, although one of the guys on the short list as a potential replacement – Force India’s Sergio Pérez – beat him to third place. 

The ultra-soft and super-soft Pirellis have ‘plastifiers’ in their compounds, designed to give grip on smooth surfaces like those of Monaco and Baku – but the tyre needs to reach a temperature threshold for the mechanism to work. This has direct implications on set-up, varying according to the track temperature. These are highly temperature-sensitive tyres either side of that threshold and the traits that can make a car fast at one track temperature can be the very reason it’s slow at another. When the track temperature is consistent, Ferrari seems able to tune its car to whatever is required. But if it becomes volatile, if the track temperature changes drastically between Saturday morning practice and qualifying later that day, for example – as it did in Monaco – then it loses the set-up. This happened again at Monaco, just as it had two weeks earlier in Barcelona, turning the car from a quick well-balanced machine into an unresponsive understeerer. Not ideal around the sharp direction changes of Monte Carlo.

Ferrari is not fully on top of tracking its set-up to the track temperature. Mercedes is. During Saturday morning practice in Monaco, in relatively cool conditions, Vettel was fastest. The Merc drivers hadn’t got their laps together but, regardless of that, the Ferrari was competitive. Qualifying three hours later was held under a scorching Mediterranean sun, the track temperature was up 12deg C – and Ferrari was nowhere. With locking front brakes and understeer, Vettel was about 0.8sec adrift of playing a part in the pole battle – which was fought out exclusively between Daniel Ricciardo and the two Mercs, with the Red Bull emerging on top. Räikkönen, a couple of tenths down even before a gearbox penalty, was out-qualified by Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India. For the second event in succession Ferrari’s early promise had evaporated in the heat. 

“We know the problem is related to how our car works with the tyres,” said Maurizio Arrivabene post-race in Monaco. “We have to work and solve this problem, because if we cannot start in the top positions then we face problems that should not be ours. Look what happened in the race here. To recover positions we had to make an aggressive strategy and that put us behind Felipe Massa – who should not be our rival.”

That was one thing, to do with raw qualifying pace, but the chance at least to salvage a podium from the weekend led Ferrari to throw the dice – too early as it turned out – in changing Vettel from wets to intermediates in the first part of the race. This brought him out behind the slower Williams of Massa, losing him time he was never going to recover and ultimately leaving him fourth on a day when third was there for the taking. The team had misjudged how much slower the pit entry was in the slippery conditions. A standard stop time would have brought him out ahead of Massa, but that just couldn’t be achieved and instead he finished directly behind Pérez’s Force India. This was all rather overshadowed by how Ricciardo lost what should have been a comfortable victory over Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, through Red Bull not having his tyres ready as he pitted for slicks. Hamilton thus got his seasonal victory tally up and running after a difficult start. If it was any consolation to Ferrari, Red Bull had made some unnecessarily jumpy strategy calls, too – and was guilty of a much more visible and embarrassing error in the miscommunication about the tyres.

In Montréal the cool temperatures remained nicely consistent on Saturday – and Ferrari, with an upgraded turbo that gave a potent power boost, was suddenly back to being a contender. Vettel was just 0.15sec slower than the two Mercedes drivers in qualifying. He converted that into the lead by the time the race was two seconds old, the Ferrari’s superb getaway helped by the clutch problem of pole-sitter Hamilton. With much faster tyre warm-up than the Mercedes on the opening lap, Vettel’s lead was impressive – big enough to allow him to get away with locking up and straight-lining the chicane at the end of the opening lap. By the second lap Hamilton was able to track the Ferrari, but being slower on the straights the Merc had no apparent route past. The red car and its silver pursuer pulled far away from the chasing pack.  

But then Ferrari gave it away. A virtual safety car to clear Jenson Button’s broken McLaren-Honda from the track proved just too tempting for Ferrari. Lap 11 was viable timing for the first of Ferrari’s planned two stops – and about 5sec could be gained by not being subject to the VSC between the pit entry and exit. Five seconds to be gained over other two-stoppers, that is. But because Merc was planning on stopping only once, Ferrari had actually just surrendered track position when it had no need. It quickly became apparent that the tyres in these cool conditions were proving much more durable than usual and so Vettel’s two-stop strategy was doomed and Hamilton beat him. Rather like at Melbourne, Ferrari had been in a position to force Mercedes to come and take it from them when it wasn’t certain that they could, but then didn’t follow up on that – thereby handing it all on a plate to its rivals.  

Arrivabene: “We overestimated the degradation of the tyres. That’s the reason why we called him in and it was the wrong decision. We don’t have to make the story bigger than it is. Today we made a mistake. The team has reacted well to understanding many things since Monaco. We made a mistake [with the strategy], but we have understood clearly how to find the right balance of the car and how to work with the tyres. This weekend we still had a gap to Mercedes, it is not big but it is enough. We need to work more to be able to win. The work we did after Monaco has paid off. We understand better certain aspects of the car, and the confirmation of that work came over the whole weekend.” 

Arrivabene was feeling the pressure. Rumours in Italy persisted that his future as team principal wasn’t assured. He may have been sharing this pressure with Räikkönen, who at Monaco had suffered an embarrassing hit with the hairpin wall, wiping off the front wing and retiring. In Montréal he qualified a full 0.6sec off Vettel’s pace, unable to generate adequate heat in his tyres – and finished a minute behind. There were extenuating circumstances but they didn’t extenuate enough. Had Ferrari’s second driver been right up with Vettel in Montréal rather than five places back, it would have allowed the team not to have placed the full gamble for the win on Vettel’s shoulders. Splitting the strategy between the two cars might have ensured at least one of them was right – if both cars had been up there. There was a faction in the team – Vettel among them – who believed Kimi could still do the job and would come good. Another faction was pressing to look around at who might be available to replace him in 2017. Pérez, Valtteri Bottas and even Carlos Sainz were on that list.   

At Baku, a bold new track running partly through little more than 12th century walkways, but incorporating a 2km flat-out section that produced speeds as high as 227mph, Ferrari ground out a result. Vettel was a solid second to Nico Rosberg despite being much less competitive to the Mercedes than in Canada. The long straight seemed to favour the Merc’s power unit and its low-speed grip and traction through the old town section was rather better than the Ferrari’s. “They seem to have something clever in how they are using the rear tyres,” said Vettel of the Mercedes. 

Räikkönen had qualified alongside Vettel on the second row, about 0.3sec slower. In the race’s early stages they ran a closely paced third and fourth, Vettel ahead. Rosberg’s Merc disappeared into the distance but Ricciardo’s Red Bull was soon suffering rear tyre graining on the scorching track – and Ferrari closed up. Vettel sliced ahead into Turn One and proceeded to pull away. Ricciardo pitted at the end of the lap, just as Räikkönen was trying to slipstream him down the long straight. Unsighted, Kimi transgressed into the painted box section reserved for those drivers who are pitting and was punished with a 5sec penalty. 

Of more significance, Ferrari showed itself to be still jumpy strategically by calling Vettel in to respond to Ricciardo’s early stop – which had surely forced the Red Bull onto the slower two-stop strategy. But the Ferrari’s tyres were holding up just fine and there was no real reason to cover what Ricciardo had done. “Are you sure?” queried Vettel, showing his leadership qualities, just as he had done when he’d defended the team from criticism at Monaco and Canada. “The tyres still feel good.” He convinced them to let him stay out. Räikkönen, because he was somewhere close to Vettel on this occasion, could be used to cover Ricciardo, giving the team the security of a split strategy, and he was brought in instead. As it happened, the Ferrari’s tyre usage in the heat was good enough that Räikkönen wasn’t compromised too much and he was able to remain on a one-stop strategy.

His problem was more the penalty and having to run quite conservatively to save fuel, for he had been short-fuelled in the expectation of safety cars that never came. He could not pull more than 5sec out on Pérez and actually didn’t make it too hard for the Force India to pass on the road on the penultimate lap. Two podiums in three races for the Mexican, with Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne looking on. His timing was perfect.

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