F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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SIX OF THE BEST

After a disappointing Monaco weekend by his own exalted standards, Lewis Hamilton bounced back to dominate in Montréal, heading a comfortable Mercedes 1-2. It was his sixth Formula 1 victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

Ferrari’s renaissance has been one of the feel-good themes of the season after three years of single-team domination by Mercedes. A title contest between two guys operating from the same garage can be fascinating – and who can deny that the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost duels of 1988/89 at McLaren were anything less than spellbinding – but having the contenders in different teams lends a welcome extra dimension.

So we now go into any given race weekend not certain if the track or the weather is going to play to the sometimes greater peak performance of the Mercedes or the flexibility and benign traits of the Ferrari. There is intrigue in whether there is a sweet spot to be found in tyre usage that will allow Lewis Hamilton and/or Valtteri Bottas to express the potent, but well hidden, performance within the Mercedes or whether Ferrari’s instant turn up/switch on hit squad will prevail. Then there are the dynamics of Hamilton trying to mount a title challenge against Vettel while also dealing with a strong in-team threat from Bottas, leaving Seb to maximise his situation supported by a compliant number two… Oh, hang on. No one had told Kimi Räikkönen about this latter point. Which was fine until he went and set pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix. 

Something transpired in that race to hack him off monumentally – and it was more than the simple fact that Vettel won the race. It was how it had been achieved. You may have read the full report on motorsportmagazine.com and the big reader reaction – and it was great to see such passion. The report explained how the crucial factor in Vettel’s victory, notwithstanding a brilliant sequence of laps on his old tyres after Räikkönen had pitted, was the superior strategy Ferrari had given him. Some didn’t want to hear this and asked for further explanations (gladly given), some were outraged at Ferrari’s actions, a small minority were simply abusive when the explanation didn’t align with what they wished to believe. All par for the course after a controversial race. 

But Ferrari did itself no favours. The problem was not so much in what it did – it made perfect sense from a championship perspective and it is entitled to run its race however it sees fit – but in how it communicated. Team principal Maurzio Arrivabene has interpreted his boss Sergio Marchionne’s instructions to relieve the pressure on the team in an ill-advised way: by essentially imposing a media blackout. Aside from the allocated driver slots, no one from the team is allowed to speak with the media and Arrivabene himself no longer hosts media slots. He can do nothing about when the FIA requests him to attend an official press conference, however, and in the two times he’s attended them this year he’s been asked about his policy. His answers have been, frankly, ridiculous. “We do lots of social media,” was one answer. “We release my statement post-race,” was the other. His statements, incidentally, invariably tell us nothing. ‘A great performance from our team, we remain focused etc.’

The implicit message was, ‘just be satisfied with what we choose to tell you and meanwhile we refuse to answer any questions.’ So, while there may have been a perfectly innocuous reason for the controversial way their Monaco race panned out, there was no way of getting the required detail from inside the team that would have allowed that explanation to be made. No race strategy questions or answers, no talking through the thinking behind key decisions. Their press release statement, summarised, ‘as the lead driver, Räikkönen had pit stop priority and was brought in first,’ was fatuous and highly disingenuous. Pit stop priority does not always mean stopping before your team-mate. In cases where the old softer tyre is still initially faster than the new harder tyre, stopping first puts you at a disadvantage – and that’s exactly what happened here. 

So how was it decided who stopped first? Was it planned? Why did Räikkönen’s pace drop off suddenly in his first stint? Was there a plan to allow Vettel a set number of post-Räikkönen laps to try to make his strategy work? Was Räikkönen informed of what the plan was pre-race? Did he agree to it? Did it play out differently to the plan? Why was he so clearly upset post-race? Such questions were the breeding ground for the conspiracy theories and the flak that Ferrari took from many of the fans. But if Ferrari chose not to answer them, or even be prepared to be asked about them, then it has only itself to blame. This will then feed upon itself as the season unfolds. It’s a disastrously ill-advised policy. 

 

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