After two races the Italian team’s challenge appears terminally damaged
Singapore had been disastrous of course, both for Sebastian Vettel/Ferrari and the championship itself. A non-score with Vettel’s chief rival Lewis Hamilton taking the victory, so late into the season with so few races left to claw it back: well, that was a blow but not necessarily a disaster.
In F1’s final visit to Sepang, just 180 miles across the water from Singapore, the redefined challenge of the remaining six races would begin. Vettel is a remarkable competitor and he arrived reset in Malaysia, positive and ready to begin turning around his fortunes. Yes, it was a 28-point deficit, but he had a great car beneath him, whereas Hamilton had a difficult, inconsistent one. Sepang, Suzuka, Austin, Mexico City, Interlagos, Yas Marina: the Ferrari was going to be fast around them all. That was a much less certain prospect for the Mercedes. So, just keep expressing the car’s performance, maximising its great traits and the rest would look after itself. Just one mechanical retirement for Hamilton – like that he suffered in Sepang last year as the oil-burning technology bit – and, so long as Vettel won, they’d be back on level terms. No, the title fight was far from over. There was a long slog ahead – six races in nine weeks – but they were to be relished. Forget the media noise, forget the recriminations about Singapore, just retreat into the team and immerse into each weekend’s task.
Easier said than done, of course. There’s always a pressure at Ferrari, even into the new era. For all that the turnaround has been achieved partly through Sergio Marchionne’s embrace of the ‘high potential’ personnel structure and the removal of blame culture, there’s still no Ross Brawn figure present at the track, keeping everything pointed the right way. With the season threatening to get away despite the quality of the car, it was time for cool heads. Vettel would not be human if he couldn’t feel that pressure brewing.
A win here – which the car was more than capable of delivering – would cool things down considerably.
The only dry practice of Friday in the equatorial heat was in the morning – and the Ferraris flew, the Merc struggling horribly, the Red Bulls pitched about halfway between. Hamilton was a whopping 1.6sec adrift of Vettel in single-lap, low-fuel pace – and the Merc was degrading its rear tyres way quicker on the little long running we saw before the session was red-flagged. A drain cover at Turn 13 had flipped up, ripping open the rear tyre of Romain Grosjean’s Haas and putting him into the wall. As a precaution, all drain cover welds – some 18 years old – were redone.
Between Friday night and Saturday morning, the Mercedes engineers had rethought a few things in an attempt at overcoming the W08’s general reluctance around here. Any track on which the most important corners have a big spread of speeds from each other invariably catches the Mercedes out (see feature on the W08/SF70H elsewhere in the magazine) and is therefore a great boon to Ferrari. Sepang, with its two hairpins but a fast, interconnected middle sector, could hardly have been better configured to expose the W08’s weakness. Finding a set-up that worked on slow and fast corners was much more difficult on the Mercedes than the Ferrari – and that is written into the very DNA of their respective concepts. Even worse than that, a track surface in the high 40degC was only going to increase the Merc’s rear tyre deg disadvantage. The Merc engineers had found around 0.5sec of that 1.5sec deficit into Saturday meaning that, with their qualifying engine mode advantage of about 0.15sec over Ferrari and 0.5sec over Red Bull, they might leapfrog Red Bull for grid positions. But that still left Vettel with a potential margin of 0.3sec or more, even in qualifying. Hamilton’s acrobatics might see him vying with the second Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen for a place on the front row – but even that would be an achievement and he’d be unlikely to hold that place in the race, given the greater long-run pace of Räikkönen and the two Red Bulls around a track where passing is relatively easy.
It began going wrong for Vettel in the last few minutes of Saturday practice, as his old high-mileage engine suffered a sudden loss of power. With just three hours to go before qualifying began, it wasn’t practical to diagnose and correct whatever the problem might be. A brand-new upgraded spec of engine was sitting in the garage, already pre-fitted with the old extra components – turbo, ers-H etc – so as not to incur penalties. Slot the old one out, the new one in– manageable in the time and accomplished with great efficiency and calm in the sweaty heat. Vettel was one of the first on track in Q1.
His first flying lap began well enough, but exiting Turn Five the engine note suddenly changed and Vettel felt a drastic reduction in power. The turbo wasn’t turning, nor therefore the ers-H. A carbon-fibre inlet manifold had cracked. A bought-in component, not particularly complex or trick, nor of a new design. But with no way of fixing it in time, Vettel would be starting from the back. The final Q3 shoot-out for pole was therefore a duel between Hamilton and Räikkönen. It was won by the former after a stupendous lap in a significantly slower car that shaded Räikkönen’s by a few hundredths. On race day the Finn suffered an identical failure to Vettel’s in qualifying and the front-row Ferrari was wheeled off the grid, leaving the team’s hopes relying on Vettel, from the back. Predictably, he scythed through the field and was challenging Ricciardo’s Red Bull for third with a few laps to go, his attack brought up short by a lack of fuel, the team having fuelled light to make the car quicker through the early traffic. On his slow-down lap he collided with Lance Stroll’s Williams in a territorial misunderstanding. It could have been worse – fourth from 20th was a good result, Hamilton hadn’t won but had been passed early on by a much faster Red Bull driven by Max Verstappen and, amazingly, Vettel’s gearbox internals weren’t significantly damaged despite a driveshaft having pulled out from the side of the ’box.
Singapore and Malaysia had, however, made for a remarkable sequence for Hamilton. At two tracks where the Merc in the dry was off the pace, circumstances and his own skills had gifted him a win and a second place.
Around Suzuka one week after Sepang, there was no reason to suppose the Mercedes wouldn’t be back to its more usual super-fast self. The track characteristics and cooler conditions would surely suit the car much better – and so it proved. Hamilton secured his 71st pole, but Vettel was right there on the front row alongside. In this one-stop race, the Ferrari’s way of being easier on the rear tyres seemed set to give Hamilton a real problem, even after he’d won the start. This had all the ingredients of being a repeat of Melbourne or China, with Vettel just following the Merc for the first stint, then – using its better end-of-stint tyres and greater tyre range – vaulting ahead at the stops. Except…
Even before the start, there’d been drama in the Ferrari garages as Vettel’s engine just wasn’t running properly upon start-up. A misfire on one cylinder. They thought they’d cured it as they refitted the engine cover. But even as he drove down the pitlane Vettel could feel it was still not firing correctly. There were attempts at a cure on the grid, but the packaging of a 2017 hybrid meant nowhere near enough time to replace the suspect spark plug. So he began the race on five cylinders, made a good start, kept his second place to Hamilton off the line. But he was vulnerable as first Verstappen, then Esteban Ocon, Ricciardo and Sergio Pérez blew by.
After four laps he was brought in and retired. Hamilton won the race, under big pressure at the end from Verstappen, the Merc’s tyre range not as good as the Red Bull’s – and probably therefore not as good as Vettel’s would have been in a faster car.
A spark plug, another externally supplied component. After appointing a new chief of quality control in the wake of Japan, team principal Maurzio Arrivabene talked afterwards of how in the chase for ever-more performance they had maybe taken their eye off the ball with quality control regarding internal inspections of external suppliers. Maybe. Or perhaps both failures were something to do with the continuing experimenting with oil burning – as Hamilton’s was in Sepang last year. Or perhaps it was just the plain dumb luck of the numbers.
With a deficit of 59 points and four races left, the remarkable thing about the Scuderia’s title challenge wasn’t so much that it had happened, but the speed of its collapse.
WORD ON THE BEAT
Rumour and gossip from the F1 paddock
NICO ROSBERG, reigning world champion, is not only now Robert Kubica’s driver manager, but also a SKY TV pundit, making a one-off appearance in the role at Suzuka. He had been in discussion with Liberty Media about an F1 ambassadorial role but we understand the deal fell through after the two parties failed to reach agreement on the number of appearances his $5 million fee would entail. Asked afterwards how his punditry role had gone, he said, “It was much more difficult than I thought.”
ROBERT KUBICA’S tests for WILLIAMS at Silverstone and the Hungaroring confirmed he was very much in contention for a 2018 seat with the team, potentially as FELIPE MASSA’S replacement. Third driver PAUL DI RESTA was also testing at the latter venue, giving the team a baseline to judge the performance of the Pole, who last raced in F1 in 2010. The Scot remained a contender for the drive, with the Mercedes-backed PASCAL WEHRLEIN also being considered, now that he has been apparently ousted from Sauber by the latter’s new Ferrari partnership.
When the FIA’s technical chief (and former chief aerodynamicist at McLaren and Ferrari) MARCIN BUDKOWSKI accepted a job with RENAULT SPORT as executive director responsible for matters relating to chassis, after only three months of gardening leave, it created a storm from virtually every other team. In his FIA role he had access to the wind tunnel information and planned technologies from all the teams and, as such, the three-month period was felt to be much too brief. The teams presented a formal objection to the FIA’s president JEAN TODT. Outside that, some of them were pressing for Budkowski’s gardening leave to be extended to 12 months while others accepted it more pragmatically – but insisted that some control be put in place to prevent a repetition in future.
McLAREN delayed its FERNANDO ALONSO announcement until after Suzuka to spare Honda’s blushes. He took a 35-place grid penalty on Honda’s home ground after qualifying 10th. A fresh Spec 3.7 went in, meaning he’d have to take another engine penalty in future if they wanted to use the Spec 4.
On the other hand TORO ROSSO’S technical department is excited by the Honda engine’s dimensions. “No wonder the McLaren is a good chassis,” said one senior man after taking his first close look at the compact Japanese engine, which now shares its architecture with the standard-setting Mercedes unit.
With Haas chief race engineer AYAO KOMATSU in the FIA press conference on the Friday at Suzuka, there was no one at the team to return tyres to the FIA at the allocated time. As Haas is staffed by 150 rather than 800, such things can happen. The team was given a suspended $5000 fine.
LIBERTY MEDIA has conducted initial feasibility studies about hosting a DUTCH GRAND PRIX around a street circuit in either Amsterdam or Rotterdam, such is the huge following for the country’s F1 sensation MAX VERSTAPPEN.
TRACKSIDE VIEW TURNS 3 & 4
Why Suzuka’s Esses showcase the best of 2017-spec F1
To motor racing’s sacred place and the symbolic landscape that cradles Suzuka. The empty fairground wheel turns slowly, the flags flutter in the breeze and the ritual begins under an overcast sky. On this Friday morning those clouds are creating a tension, their threat – and the promise of an afternoon storm – meaning everyone is trying to squeeze their meaningful practice into half the time, or less. It’s a race to find out as much as possible before rain renders the surface blank and useless, surrendering no relevant secrets for dry qualifying and race. With that equation of asphalt, downforce and elastomers to be solved, the cars charge out all of a group.
Looking down upon the Turn 4 exit, early into the most challenging sequence of bends on the calendar, the thunderbolt is not yet actual. But it’s the realisation that even a Sauber looks fantastic through here, so much faster are the 2017 generation of cars. It’s still slower than all the others, yet visually faster than even the best of last year.
Drivers now take sixth into Turn 3 and hold it all the way through the left-right squiggle, no brakes, just a feathering of throttle. The defining difference is only what momentum their grip allows them to carry. Hamilton and Vettel make you draw breath as they commit into T3, but the Red Bulls look like speeded-up film. The task of the Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers at this stage of the lap is just to put the car on the right piece of track – and they no longer need to bother sweeping left to approach the right-hander of T4 because they can just carry the momentum into there from an acute angle, thereby allowing them to devour all the lap time that’s available by only the slightest throttle modulation out of T3. There’s no longer any wrestling with the car involved, not for those three machines at least.
Things are slightly more nervy for cars less well endowed with downforce, but the speeds are still immense for such an apparently tight and narrow section of track. Stoffel Vandoorne’s approach in the McLaren is heralded by sparks and the scuff of skid plates upon the ground, all dramatic direction changes into T3, reluctant as he is to surrender even the tiniest drop of momentum that his engine will struggle to recover as the track heads steeply uphill, the orange car in the shallowest of oversteer as he exits T4.
There’s a nice contrast between the Force India drivers, Sergio Pérez direct and dominant, Esteban Ocon using his car as a dancing partner by comparison, with smoother lines, less adamant about exactly where it will turn. Uniquely, Romain Grosjean leans his head to match the corner, Jean Alesi-style, as he hustles the Haas around.
The gentle breeze is carrying moisture and the odd rain drop, then progressively just the slightest and most delicate of drizzle. It’s not enough significantly to change the grip of the track, but it’s creating a building and unwanted hazard on the painted exit kerbs elsewhere. Eventually Carlos Sainz finds this out across at the hairpin – and a red flag falls. That’s most of the dry-running done. The old track will yield no more secrets today.