Grand Prix notebook

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At this stage of the season, with everything up at the Mercedes end of the grid funnelling down towards second consecutive championships, the real intrigue lay with the whole Red Bull operation. By the time of the Japanese and Russian Grands Prix it was becoming more apparent that the engine supply crisis was very real. With Mercedes having already scratched itself from furnishing a key rival, the previously assumed Ferrari fallback was dismissed in Suzuka by team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. He and his boss Sergio Marchionne had come to much the same conclusion as Mercedes for much the same reasons. There was a commercial deal on the table for 2015-spec Ferrari engines, preferably for Toro Rosso rather than the main team, and that was it. Two weeks later in Russia, Bernie Ecclestone, while maintaining pressure on Mercedes and Ferrari to change their minds, was also attempting to rescue the seemingly doomed Red Bull-Renault partnership from the divorce courts. “Mercedes and Ferrari have refused to supply us out of fear,” Red Bull’s technical chief Adrian Newey said post-Russia. “We’re possibly going to be forced out of F1.”

Daniel Ricciardo – already established as a multiple Grand Prix winner and potential world champion – seemed genuinely unfazed by it all, perhaps reasoning that whatever happened a way would be found to have him on the F1 grid next season. For the others in the programme – Daniil Kvyat and Toro Rosso rookies Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz – the performance pressure that is an inherent part of the Red Bull driver programme was only intensified. Things got a little frayed around the edges and, in the accidents of Kvyat in Suzuka and Sainz in Sochi, there were definite elements of pressure. Regardless of whether Red Bull is still in F1 next year, Kvyat’s deal there had not yet been confirmed. Was his place safe against Verstappen or Sainz being promoted? And what was the management’s assessment of how the Toro Rosso guys compared? It was close enough that a run of form for one or the other in these closing few races could be decisive. 

Kvyat and Sainz are 21 years old. Verstappen turned 18 on the weekend of Suzuka. They all have huge ambition, are at the crucial final hurdle of potentially brilliant F1 careers but have grown up in an era of racing infinitely safer than even the previous generation. The margins of risk they regularly take are different even from those of the older guys on this grid. But the sport can still bite. 

Japan

Mercedes normality returned after the apparent mirage of Singapore, with the two silver arrows on the front of the grid. But unusually it was Nico Rosberg on pole, Lewis Hamilton a vital few hundredths slower. This was a Saturday battle that didn’t get to play out fully however – because of red flags in the dying moments of Q3
for an almighty accident suffered by Kvyat. He rolled his Red Bull after getting on the grass on the approach to the sixth-gear Turn 10 kink.
He emerged unharmed but shaken. 

The Friday sessions had been rained out, but in the first of them Sainz – seeing Suzuka for the very first time – was impressively fastest of all, from Kvyat. In the afternoon Kvyat was the man at the head of the timing screens, looking hugely confident and aggressive. Between Suzuka’s very solid boundaries in slippery conditions, both Sainz and Kvyat were breathtakingly audacious in their approaches. 

Aggressively chasing the limits on Friday is Sainz’s standard modus operandi in his rookie season. He then typically comes back from the raw edge to find the optimum for Saturday. But in the context of the hazards of this particular track and the conditions, it seemed risky.
He didn’t see it that way. “No, the car felt well balanced and it took
me only a few laps before I felt very comfortable.” At about 1sec faster than Verstappen in this session, it was a hugely impressive performance. “I came here for 15 years and never topped a session,” joked David Coulthard. “You came here and did it straight away!” It would be fair to say that the Dutch teenager was expected to shine most brightly of the team’s two young stars in 2015, but Sainz has challenged that assumption from day one. On paper he was the faster qualifier to date, though lagging slightly behind in the points table. The hierarchy was still not established one way or another.

There had been some niggle between them in Singapore, when the team requested Verstappen move aside for Sainz – who was on slightly newer tyres and might have been able to mount a stronger attack on the car ahead. Max refused point-blank, which triggered Carlos into later pointing out how many times (three) during the season he had acceded to a similar request. There were still some feather-ruffled discussions about that at Suzuka. 

Frustratingly their in-team contest didn’t get to play out properly in qualifying. Sainz’s front-right tyre temperature sensor came loose within the rim on his vital Q2 lap, creating a massive vibration that prevented him from graduating to Q3. Verstappen didn’t even make it that far, his car’s electrics cutting out at the hairpin in Q1 and automatically barring him from Q2 participation. Furthermore, he was awarded a grid penalty for choosing to stop in an obstructive place, having initially coasted towards a safe spot. If he was figuring on getting the session stopped so his car could be retrieved to the pits, then he’d not understood the rules. For as soon as a car stops on track during qualifying, it can take no further part. 

Once onto a dry track on Saturday, Kvyat’s aggression was not working for him. The composed Ricciardo was significantly faster pretty much everywhere, seemingly triggering Daniil into trying yet harder. He was being particularly bold in shaving the track’s edges on the approach to corners. On his first Q3 run he went just a little too far with this on the 160mph approach to Turn 10 and in no time he was on the grass and heading for the barriers. He landed the right way up uninjured after a spectacular roll. In a previous era, his days would probably have ended right there. It was a massive accident. He would start the race from the pits in a car rebuilt around the spare tub. 

Up front the race was decided in the opening moments, as Hamilton made a better start than Rosberg to go side-by side through Turns One-Two, then wiped him against the Turn Two exit kerbs, forcing Rosberg to yield enough to lose further positions to the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas’ Williams. He’d spend the rest of the race getting those places back, leaving Hamilton unopposed.  

Among the Red Bull contingent, Ricciardo’s race was ruined at the start, with a puncture inflicted from a Felipe Massa endplate. Verstappen emerged the leading representative in ninth place, Sainz 10th and Kvyat 13th. Sainz would probably have headed the group but for damaging his car against the pit entry bollard. Trying to undercut Pastor Maldonado approaching the stops he was told to do the opposite of whatever the Lotus did. Maldonado made as if he was pitting, Sainz prepared to stay out in response, only for Maldonado to continue. Sainz was therefore super-late in swinging into the pits, hence the contact that damaged his floor and made him slow enough to come under a successful late attack from his nemesis and team-mate. Earlier, Verstappen had been following Kvyat as they each chased down Fernando Alonso’s McLaren up to 130R. Max tried for an outside pass on Daniil there, found himself on the kerbing at 200mph and casually applied some opposite lock… Fearless. 

Russia

Just as in Suzuka, Friday practice was wiped out. Rain in the afternoon, a heavy diesel spillage from a track cleaning vehicle in the morning. So the Toro Rosso drivers, on their first time around here, were having to learn the track in the dry on Saturday morning, just prior to qualifying. Both were pushing hard. Sainz had just completed his low-fuel, option-tyred qualifying simulation and had switched to fuelled-up, prime-tyred race spec. Accordingly, he had changed the brake bias map a little more rearwards. He was on his first flying lap with this configuration approaching the fast left-handed kink of Turn 12, where a brief but heavy brake is needed, for it’s followed almost immediately by a tight right. It’s a combination that unsettles the car, definitely the trickiest part of the track. Sainz briefly locked his left-rear just as he was getting into the kink, oversteering him hard into the barriers, wiping off his left-front wheel, which left him with almost
no retardation on the asphalt run-off area and he ploughed into the TecPro barriers. The low nose of the car lifted these above it and then punched a hole in the metal barrier behind. With the TecPro having come to rest on top of the car, Sainz was trapped – but essentially uninjured. It was a 46g impact but he’d remained conscious throughout. It took more than 20 minutes to get him out to be taken to hospital for observation. He would miss qualifying but in times past he’d have missed more than that. So he watched from a hospital bed as Rosberg beat Hamilton to pole for the second race in succession, but only the third all season. Verstappen qualified his Toro Rosso ninth, one place ahead of Ricciardo, three ahead of Kvyat, who seemed somewhat detuned on his home track. 

Cleared to race, Sainz would start from the back of the grid in his rebuilt car. Remarkably, he was running seventh late in the race. A blocked duct eventually caused his front brakes to overheat drastically, putting him out. Once the carbon-fibre discs reach a critical threshold of temperature – typically about 900deg C – they begin to oxidise into thin air. At a certain point there is no bringing them back as the oxidisation gets into a runaway state. So it was that as Carlos stood on the brakes with eight laps to go, the left-front disc shattered and ignited. 

Verstappen’s race was ruined on the first lap, the victim of a spinning Nico Hülkenberg. As he snagged the Force India, he picked up a puncture and seriously damaged the car’s underside. He struggled slowly on and was rewarded with a point – 11th across the line but promoted to 10th after a time penalty was imposed upon Alonso for not respecting track limits. 

Kvyat was a quiet sixth across the line, benefiting from the late race retirement ahead of him of Ricciardo with a driveshaft problem. He was promoted a further position when fifth-placed Kim Räikkönen was penalised 30sec for his last-lap collision with Bottas, after a failed bid to take third place.

Rosberg led the early stages but retired with a broken throttle damper, leaving Hamilton to take his Vettel-equalling 42nd Grand Prix victory. Vettel was runner-up, Sergio Pérez an excellent third for Force India. The Räikkönen penalty reduced Ferrari’s points haul just enough to confirm Mercedes as champion constructor. It was only a couple of years ago that Red Bull was as dominant as Mercedes has become.

The future is uncertain.

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