Grand Prix notebook

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Malaysia & Japan

Coming into the back-to-back races of Malaysia and Japan, Sebastian Vettel’s early-season smile, which had grown into a frown by mid-season, was now a full-on scowl, with the Ferrari programme seeming to have collapsed around his ears. It had all seemed so promising coming into his Scuderia sophomore year on the foundation of those three feelgood race victories in 2015. But in ’16 there had been only missed opportunities, poor reliability and a widening deficit to the front. 

The missed opportunities were to do with some of the decisions made on the pit wall, losing Vettel probable victories in both Melbourne and Montréal through apparently under-estimating the value of track position. Even as recently as Singapore it had surrendered Kimi Räikkönen’s third place to Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes through an unnecessary stop. The early-season wobbly calls seemed sometimes to have undermined Vettel’s confidence in the guidance he was being given from the team on race day. At Hockenheim for example, he was instructed to pit. “Why?” he had responded, “My tyres still feel good.” The reply – “We are going to try for the undercut” – made no sense. Max Verstappen was eight seconds up the road, an impossible deficit to overcome through pitting earlier. “I think I will stay out,” Vettel had replied. It wasn’t the only time he’d been having to direct strategy from the cockpit, either. 

Yet he’d made no public criticism of the team, despite his increasingly impatient, frustrated tone over the radio in times of high stress. Furthermore, he was missing working with technical director James Allison who’d departed mid-season. Everyone was trying hard, but things were in disarray, people were stressed as pressure from big boss Sergio Marchionne mounted.  

Coming into the Asian double-header the Scuderia had resolved to wipe the slate clean. A new approach had been tried at the factory, at Marchionne’s instigation. Since mid-season he’d been interviewing people from all departments and all levels of seniority, asking them their ideas of what they saw as lacking in their areas. Many of them had not held back – there’d been no lack of suggestions. As such, there was to be a new, flatter structure for input of ideas, less hierarchical. To try out its effectiveness, it had been decided to continue with the development of the current car even as everyone else was devoting pretty much all their resource to their 2017 cars and the new aero regulations. 

Development had been slow and ineffective all season but into Sepang came a new wave of components: front wing pillars extending 5cm back to give a cleaner airflow to the wing underside, revisions to the turning vanes and ‘bat’ wing on the sidepod. They were tried out in practice – instrumented, with aero loadings taken from pressure pads – as preparation for their introduction in Suzuka, one of the most aerodynamically demanding tracks on the calendar and in recent years a place where Ferraris have struggled. Arriving on Friday evening in Suzuka would be a further development complementing these changes – a redesigned footplate section for the wing.

The cars had reverted to standard specification from Saturday in Sepang as the aero department back at Maranello made sense of the correlation between tunnel, CFD and track. Things looked quite promising in the long runs when the car appeared closely matched to Mercedes and Red Bull, treating its tyres very kindly. Over one lap the standard car still lacked three or four tenths of raw downforce through the aerodynamically demanding middle sector of Sepang though, leaving Vettel and Räikkönen sharing the third row, with Mercedes on row one, Red Bull row two. 

One thing the SF16 does very well – probably better than any other car – is brake. The opening few seconds therefore represent the best opportunity to make progress from its under-performance in qualifying. Vettel has frequently used this quality to the full during the season. It’s high risk – it played its part in the Kvyat collision in Sochi – but there’s little to lose at this stage of the season. So as the pack headed down to Turn One, the Mercs running 1-2, Vettel sliced down the inside of Verstappen’s Red Bull. They were both on the braking limit, each briefly locking front wheels, but it would all probably have been fine – except that the Mercedes of Rosberg, unaware of their tussle, was turning across their bows. Vettel couldn’t avoid him, hit him hard up the rear, destroying the Ferrari’s front suspension and spinning the Merc to the back. Vettel would later receive a three-place grid drop imposed at the next race for his misjudgment. 

It all left Hamilton apparently unopposed on his way to a straightforward victory over the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen. But it didn’t happen that way. A big end bearing seized in Hamilton’s engine and Red Bull scored a 1-2, Ricciardo ahead. Räikkönen was barged out of third by a recovering Rosberg. A solitary fourth place represented slim pickings for the Scuderia, but at least there was the promise of good things in Suzuka – if the aero department was to be believed. 

A frank ‘discussion’ between chief designer Simone Resta and the engine department – about the power figures the aero department was working from in determining optimum drag-downforce trade-offs – had resulted in a more realistic measure and consequently better real-world results. Getting away from blame culture between departments has been an essential part of Mercedes’ current success. But it’s something that might be more difficult to achieve under the pressures prevailing at Maranello. 

But the new parts seemed to work. They were fitted to both cars from the start of the Suzuka weekend and delivered pretty much what the tunnel had promised – a lap time improvement of almost 0.3sec. That’s massive by the standards of modern F1 and suddenly Ferrari had leapfrogged Red Bull as the second-fastest car. The track particularly suits Räikkönen and he was the closest thing to the Mercedes throughout the practice sessions, the Finn qualifying third just 0.3sec off the pace of the Silver Arrows. Vettel was fourth-fastest but taking his three-place penalty. Then on race morning it was confirmed Räikkönen would be taking a five-place grid drop for a new gearbox – a serious weak point of the car.

So even though the aero revisions arising from the new approach brought a welcome sense of progress after months of stagnation, their effectiveness had been disguised by continuing reliability problems. Maybe the underlying performance could be better translated on race day. 

Then, out of nowhere, a grenade: team principal Maurizio Arrivabene, interviewed on Italian TV, said – among other, more innocuous, things – that Vettel should focus more on driving the car, less on getting involved in other areas of the team and that he would have to earn his next contract. Vettel played it down, but confided to others in the paddock how unimpressed he’d been by the comments after such a trying season carrying the team and being openly supportive, refusing to criticise its often lamentable performance. Within the politically charged environment of Ferrari, it seemed unlikely that Arrivabene had delivered two such incendiary messages unauthorised. Had Vettel – in trying to make things happen behind the scenes, assuming the sort of wider responsibility that his friend Michael Schumacher used to – incurred Marchionne’s wrath? Had Vettel been slapped down? Was this that message? Fernando Alonso might have been watching with a knowing look. 

A near-stall for Hamilton at the start came perilously close to triggering the Ferraris into colliding as everyone sought a way around the slow-reacting Mercedes. But they made it through unscathed and quickly set about putting the Red Bulls under big pressure, Vettel soon catching second-placed Verstappen while Räikkönen attacked Ricciardo a little farther back. Rosberg’s Mercedes led, doing just enough to keep out of reach of Verstappen and Vettel.

Around the second stops it appeared as if Ferrari had Hamilton in a strategical headlock. In his recovery drive the Mercedes driver had got ahead of the Ricciardo-Räikkönen battle and was chasing down Vettel. But Ferrari then brought Kimi in early for the second stops and on his new tyres he was flying – threatening to get close enough to undercut his way ahead of Hamilton. On the Mercedes pit wall they were certain that bringing Hamilton in to prevent this would bring up short his attack on Vettel – and that Ferrari would pit the German before he could be undercut. Amazingly, Ferrari chose to leave Vettel out – which enabled Hamilton to undercut Vettel as well as avoiding being undercut by Räikkönen. The Ferrari strategists had dropped the ball yet again. On a day when they might have been second and fourth, they were fourth and fifth. Rosberg’s win increased his championship lead over Hamilton to 33 points with just four races to go.  

Vettel did his usual afterwards, saying he took full responsibility for the strategy decision. But inevitably there was speculation about whether Suzuka represented the first visible sign of a divide between the Scuderia and its star driver.

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