Grand Prix Notebook

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Singapore, Japan & Russia

Rd 14 Marina Bay, September 21, 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 2hr 00min 04.795sec
2 Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull RB10 – 2hr 00min 18.329sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo – Red Bull RB10 – 2hr 00min 19.068sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 50.417sec
Race distance: 60 laps, 188.749 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 45.681sec

Rd 15 Suzuka, October 5, 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 51min 43.021sec
2 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 51min 52.201sec
2 Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull RB10 – 1hr 52min 12.143sec

Fastest lap Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 51.600sec
Race distance 44 laps, 158.579 miles
Pole position Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1min 32.506sec

Rd 16 Sochi, October 12, 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 31min 50.744sec
2 Nico Rosberg – Mercedes W05 – 1hr 32min 04.401sec
3 Valtteri Bottas – Williams FW36 – 1hr 32min 08.169sec

Fastest lap: Valtteri Bottas – Williams FW36 – 1min 40.896sec
Race distance: 53 laps, 192.467 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 38.513sec

Jules Bianchi’s slick tyres were 17 laps old as he crested the hill that is the beginning of Suzuka’s Dunlop Corner, a long left-hander. Double waved yellow flags were showing and a flashing yellow light shone out from the gloom of spray and fading light where Adrian Sutil’s Sauber had gone off. Bianchi crested the rise still on the dry line that had formed through the wet surface but, with the rain increasing once more, the standing water was beginning to flow across that line. His worn right-rear found a wet patch, the car snapped suddenly sideways, he instinctively corrected it but as the rears then found dry grip once more so it was impossible for him to get the opposite lock off quickly enough – and the Marussia ploughed straight on across the gravel trap and at barely unabated speed hit the tractor that was removing Sutil’s car. With Bianchi on a life support machine as we went to press, it was a brutal reminder, 20 years on from F1’s last fatalities, that it remains an inherently dangerous sport.

This incident overshadowed all else in F1 subsequently. The Japanese Grand Prix was red-flagged and the result declared nine laps short of its allocated distance – a result that had Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes at the head of the pack for the third successive race. Two weeks earlier he’d triumphed over an inopportunely timed safety car around Singapore’s night-time streets. One week later he was able to cruise to a dominant victory in the Russian Grand Prix. These results have elevated him back ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg in the championship for the first time since Spain in May. Hamilton’s run of form was akin to the ace 400-metre runner’s extra kick going into the final straight and seemed to leave Rosberg somewhat detuned. In the process it helped cement Mercedes-Benz’s first world championship for constructors (an award that had still to be invented during the last era of Mercedes F1 domination, in 1954-55).

Singapore

With Rosberg effectively out of this before it even started – an electrical short in the wiring of the steering controls caused by a service substance contamination – this should have been a straightforward, if humidly exhausting, evening’s work for Hamilton. It was shaping up that way until his race was complicated by the timing of a safety car, before he’d run both tyre compounds as required by the regulations. With several of his rivals having already made the switch and therefore not needing to stop again – including the second-placed Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel – and Hamilton’s formerly comfortable lead wiped out, the stage was set for a mesmerising display as the Mercedes driver sought to sprint away upon the restart to build up the necessary margin of 27 seconds that would allow him to complete a stop without losing his lead. Could he do this before his softer tyres overheated themselves into uselessness?

Rosberg’s car was wheeled off the grid and would start from the pitlane, needing a drop start as Nico had been unable to get it into gear. Running near the back with almost none of the electrical storage’s extra 160bhp available and with continuing gear selection glitches, he would never be a factor and retired when he was again unable to select a gear at his first stop.

Hamilton took off into the lead from pole, the Red Bulls of Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo squabbled into Turn One in his wake, Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari tried going round the outside of both but locked up and had to take to the run-off area. Alonso rejoined ahead of the Red Bulls and voluntarily surrendered a place to Vettel as the pack charged up Raffles Avenue through the kink of Turn Six and into the tight left of Seven that on Monday morning would be a traffic light-controlled crossroads, host to rush-hour traffic. But Alonso chopped across the bows of Ricciardo, clearly with no intention of yielding two places. No action was taken, no instruction given to hand back the other place he’d gained by running off the track.

Alonso might have taken pole here had he not just slightly over-reached on his final effort. The super-soft option tyre suits the Ferrari very well, gives it a better front end and disguises its traction shortfall for a few laps. The Mercedes, conversely, doesn’t like the tyre and its qualifying advantage is invariably reduced whenever it’s run (see also Monaco, Montréal and Austria) as it picks up understeer it doesn’t normally suffer. But in race trim normality returns – as Hamilton was now demonstrating while Alonso was gradually left behind by Vettel.

Seb even kept Hamilton in sight for a few laps. After which the Mercedes driver, having given the tyres an easy time when the car was at its heaviest, then stepped up the pace and left the field far behind.

After the first of what were expected to be three stops, Alonso was happier on his fresh tyres and closed up to Vettel’s tail. Ferrari reacted by bringing him in early for his second stop and in this way leap-frogged ahead. Red Bull, realising the place was lost for now, brought Vettel in a few laps later and fitted him with the harder tyre, reckoning on being able to attack after the third stops when he’d be back on the super-soft and Alonso on the mediums. The same strategy was followed by Ricciardo and Williams, for the same reasons. But it didn’t get to pan out that way. Instead, Adrian Sutil’s Sauber and Sergio Pérez’s Force India made contact as the latter was trying to pass. Pérez’s wing then dismantled itself and, with carbon fibre debris spread down St Andrews Road, the safety car was brought out with 30 laps to go.

This was bad news for Hamilton and Alonso, neither of whom had yet run the medium prime tyre and had in fact only recently made their second stops. Ferrari decided to bring Alonso in immediately to fit him with primes. With the pack circulating at safety car speeds this lost them only two places – to the Red Bulls – and now the task was to make those tyres last for the second half of the race, a tall order given how much the rears degrade through the constant low-gear acceleration. But the longer the safety car circulated, the more feasible this became. Conversely for Hamilton who stayed out, the longer the race was under the safety car the fewer laps he would have left to build up the gap necessary to make his third stop. It stayed out for a full seven laps, triggering both Red Bull and Williams into joining Ferrari in trying to get through with no further stops.

Upon the resumption of racing beneath the neon, Hamilton duly took off like a scalded cat while Vettel and those lined up directly behind him – Ricciardo, Alonso, Massa, Bottas, Button and Räikkönen – drove smoothly and conservatively, trying to get their rubber to the end.

Within a dozen laps he had the gap out to 24sec – enough to clear everyone apart from Vettel after a stop – but then his tyres began to go. “When you bringing me in?” he asked. “Let’s just try to get the gap to 27sec,” came the reply. “The tyres are gone, man.” As the lap times began to confirm this, so he was brought in with nine laps to go. He rejoined a few seconds behind Vettel but going at a different rate. On the following lap he squeezed past the Red Bull through the kink of Turn Six – and disappeared into the night. After he took the chequer, the closely spaced Vettel, Ricciardo and Alonso were a whole pit straight behind. The lower places were fought over desperately as fading tyre grip and differing strategies played out, and Massa took fifth ahead of the charging Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne.

Japan

Typhoon Phanfone was on its way, threatening to cause the race’s cancellation. In hindsight, it’s a pity it didn’t. As it was, the rain was heavy enough that even the safety car start phase of the race was abandoned after two laps, the cars brought to the pits to wait for the storm to subside. This also allowed teams to increase the ride heights, reducing the risk of aquaplaning on their underbody planks. After 15 minutes they got underway behind the safety car once more.

It stayed out for a further seven laps, during which time Alonso’s Ferrari – in fifth – retired with water in its electrics.

It wasn’t a great weekend for Fernando, as Red Bull had announced to the world that Sebastian Vettel would be leaving at the end of the year – the world champion heading for Ferrari, as Alonso’s replacement, Fernando having been released from his contract with the Scuderia. This public knowledge hurt the Spaniard’s negotiating position in his discussions with McLaren.

As the safety car came in Rosberg took off from pole, with Hamilton hard in his tracks. Button brought the McLaren in for a switch to intermediates immediately – and this would vault him up to third as the rest followed suit a couple of laps or more later.

Hamilton, his attempt at leap-frogging Rosberg at the stops having floundered when he ran wide at Spoon on his in-lap, continued to pressure his team-mate. Rosberg looked far from comfortable at the front even as a dry line began to go down. The Mercedes was oversteering more than he cared for, while Hamilton tracked him like a shadow, looking like he had pace in hand if only he could pass.

Both Red Bulls had opted for full wing set-ups that hurt their speed in qualifying but were coming into its own in these conditions. Vettel and Ricciardo were scything through the field and within a few laps were past the Williams pair Massa and Bottas to go fourth and fifth. Ricciardo’s passes both came at the top of the Esses, around the outside. Vettel made each of his moves at the hairpin. They were the fastest cars on track at this stage as they homed in on Button, who was a long way behind the Mercs but now lapping comparably fast – another indication of Rosberg’s struggle.

Hamilton took advantage of Rosberg getting a twitch onto the pit straight on the 26th lap to get a DRS run on him. But in these conditions the DRS flap needed to be manually closed before the kink preceding Turn One – and Hamilton forgot to do so. A wayward moment ran him briefly onto the run-off area and took the pressure off Rosberg, but not for long. Hamilton was soon right back with him and on lap 28 burst out from behind Rosberg’s spray as the latter covered the inside line and went clean around the outside at Turn One to take the lead. He initially pulled away at two seconds per lap, then about one second each time thereafter, totally in his own zone. He later recalled that it felt much like his victorious 2008 drive in the Silverstone rain.

A steering wheel electrics glitch delayed Button at his next stop, allowing Vettel to pass. As Ricciardo then closed on him with the rain beginning to fall again, Button threw the strategic dice and pitted for wets. Another to make this choice was Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson and he was chasing down the Marussia of Jules Bianchi, lying 17th on worn inters, when the Frenchman lost control through Dunlop. And just like that, everything changed. The race was backdated a lap before the red flag, meaning Vettel’s stop for new tyres didn’t count and he kept his third place. Hamilton and Rosberg gave Mercedes another 1-2, but no one was celebrating.

Russia

A new venue around the Winter Olympics site in Sochi played host to F1 for the first time, and President Putin was in attendance. The Bianchi tragedy was still hanging heavy over the community, many of the drivers still shocked.

The track was Valencia-like in character and its surface exceptionally smooth. The soft/medium tyre choice brought by Pirelli turned out to be very conservative and there was virtually no performance degradation on either compound – meaning that it didn’t much matter strategically when you pitted for your one and only change. Coupled with an exceptional fuel demand from the succession of low-gear corners, it made for a remarkably uneventful race once the early skirmishes were settled.

One of those concerned Rosberg – who, after taking the lead from his pole-sitting team-mate Hamilton in the opening seconds, then locked up his brakes disastrously for Turn Two. He took to the escape road and rejoined still leading, but his tyres were down to the cord and so misshapen he could barely see where he was going through the vibration. He pitted at the end of the lap and from that moment this was Hamilton’s race. He was in cruise mode for most of the afternoon, yet still comfortably pulled away from a pack led for most of the way by Valtteri Bottas’s Williams.

Bottas was passed on the 31st of the 53 laps by the recovering Rosberg, still on the prime tyres he’d had fitted on lap two. The assumption at Williams was he’d need to stop again. The same assumption had initially been made at Mercedes, too, until it became clear from Rosberg’s times and comments that he could go through to the end. At this point Bottas launched a counter-attack, but for every super-fast lap he did Rosberg was able to respond, keeping himself about 5sec clear. Bottas never gave up and recorded the fastest lap of the race on his final lap. By which time Hamilton was 20sec past the chequer.

Close to the edge
Turn four, Suzuka

Turn Four, the flowing uphill mid-point of Suzuka’s Esses, and a 17-year-old kid has joined an official F1 practice session. Circulating among legends around the category’s most demanding track, it would be easy to be overawed.

But Max Verstappen isn’t needing to push to find the Toro Rosso’s grip limits; he’s having to pull himself back from what he wants to do and accept what the car insists it can’t. A lap to warm the tyres and to check the view of the track’s curves from the cockpit conform to what’s familiar on PlayStation.

On his first flying lap the car is alive, rear tyre limits briefly breached, a twitch from the rear as he noses it into the apex, a small measure of understeer thereafter. He’s on it sooner than most, keen to get some feedback logged into his brain. This is not so different to an F3 car, he says later; the step to F3 from karting was much bigger. In the transition between the left of Three and the right of Four – the directional shift after a downchange to third – resides the difference between a great car and an ordinary one. The Toro Rosso isn’t like the Red Bull or Mercedes, which instantly point. Instead it takes a moment for that set change to work its way from the building grip of the front tyres to the rear, a moment of hesitation as the car appears to think about it.

It’s important to maintain momentum yet keep a tight line here, as how you exit determines how close to the ideal approach you can be for the faster flowing left of Five.

Verstappen initially tries to speed up that direction change – to wake the car from its stupor and comfort zone – with an aggressive initial input of steering to overload the rear. It loses more momentum on exit than it gains him on entry and by his second lap he’s already trimming back on that approach. Through the next hour or so he tries a variety of subtly different ways and by the end he’s settled into a rhythm that showcases a beautiful co-ordination of throttle foot, steering wheel and yaw angle that is keeping the car nicely on the boil. Roll on Melbourne 2015, when we get to see him actually race.

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