Grand Prix notebook

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USA, Mexico & Brazil

“It’s competition and in competition that’s how it is,” answered Lewis Hamilton when asked about sporting etiquette. “You always get one who is more aggressive than the other – whether it’s football, tennis or here. I don’t know the answer or the psychology behind it, but it’s to do with fierce competitiveness.”

There was a fierceness to how Hamilton dealt with his team-mate Nico Rosberg – and the final crumbling barrier to his second consecutive title – at the first corner in Austin. It was a more extreme version of what he’d dished out at Suzuka, actually banging wheels this time to move him aside. In that moment relations between the pair – always on the verge of niggly discord – took a turn for the worse. Embodied in Rosberg’s return throw of the second-place cap was anger at what he saw as just one more example of Hamilton’s unreasonableness, and at himself. For putting himself in that position, perhaps, and for subsequently blowing a chance of beating him to the race win regardless.  

“I know what it is to be in Nico’s position,” sympathised Niki Lauda post-race in Austin. “All he could do was delay the inevitable by beating Lewis here. Many years ago I did the same to my team-mate Prost at Zandvoort. It was only a question of when he took the title, not if, but I was able to delay him for a further race by beating him. You want to be able to say ‘take that guy’. Nico had got himself into a position to do that, then screwed it up. So I think he was also angry at himself, not just Lewis.”

“I’ve seen their relationship move from OK to not OK and back many times,” says Toto Wolff, “and to be honest I don’t really care – so long as it does not harm the team.” Banging wheels as Hamilton had done came perilously close to harming the team. It was the sort of thing Rosberg had been publicly censured for at Spa last year. But in the celebratory aftermath of Hamilton clinching his third world title, it just didn’t feel appropriate to Wolff to be too critical – and so he saved it for a later day. 

But the dynamics on–track and off-track between the two Mercedes drivers coloured these races. They were made all the more interesting given that Rosberg – who had been able to score just one pole all season before Japan – had by the end of this sequence of races taken five of them in a row. And post-Austin, he seemed to carry a new resolve with him on race day too – as if that anger had brought something to his game previously missing.  

Or was there a more technical explanation? The five consecutive Rosberg poles coincided with the new post-Monza regulation on minimum tyre pressures. Was there something about the lower grip this enforced upon the cars? Was that enough to switch things in Rosberg’s favour? “There is nothing we see in the data that supports that,” said Wolff in Brazil. “No, it’s not that,” said Rosberg. So what was it? “I don’t honestly know.” 

USA

Rosberg made it three consecutive poles here. Had Hamilton – with the title now just a formality – lost a little focus? “It’s just work hard, play hard,” he said on the Thursday before the race. “I’ve struck a really nice balance. At some points I think, ‘This is on the limit’, and then I get in the car and drive the way I do. I don’t know if it’s a James Hunt thing or what…” After clinching the title, he went into more detail. “Up until last year I didn’t really drink a lot. That’s changed a lot this year. If you knew how much I consumed… I’ll definitely be having a drink tonight. The next couple of months is party time. I’ve got my mum’s 60th coming up, I’ve got friends’ events coming up, I’ve got more races to win, we’ve got the team end-of-year party, we’ve got [Mercedes event] Stars and Cars, jeez…”

The controversial Turn One incident came as Rosberg and Hamilton turned in there side-by-side, Hamilton on the inside. Just as in Turn Two at Suzuka, he lent on Rosberg more than he needed to – and Rosberg accommodated him. It concluded with banging front wheels and Rosberg clambering out on the asphalt run-off beyond the exit kerb – losing him a further three places. He’d grabbed one of them back before the end of the lap but that still left the two Red Bulls between the Mercs. 

They were all on inters in these early laps, though this was the driest the track had been all weekend up until this point, Austin suffering flooding on Friday and Saturday that actually threatened the whole event. On the intermediate tyres the Red Bulls were the fastest cars on track. Daniil Kvyat got ahead of Hamilton to lead for a few yards but eventually it was Daniel Ricciardo who was able to make the move stick. Had the track remained wet it would likely have been a Red Bull one-two. But it didn’t. The track dried, Rosberg got himself back into the lead – having got by Hamilton at the stops – and pulled out a big lead while Hamilton took time to find a way by Ricciardo.

But a safety car wiped away Rosberg’s advantage, and came at a time that dovetailed beautifully with when Ferrari had brought in Sebastian Vettel. He now needed one less stop than the Mercs and looked set for victory. But he was denied by a virtual safety car to clear debris from a clash between Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and Ricciardo. This allowed the Mercs their stops for free, getting them back out still one-two, Rosberg ahead. If the positions remained this way Rosberg would delay Hamilton’s title for another race. Instead, shortly after the restart Rosberg went wide as he got on the power out of Turn 18 – and Hamilton swooped past, the victory and the title his. The first-ever British consecutive world title winner. Rosberg did not share his joy. 

Mexico

There had been conversations between Hamilton and Wolff in the seven days between these races – but no public censure, other than the boss insisting his driver had been “too hard” at Turn One in Austin. Rosberg was privately fuming as F1 arrived in Mexico City for the first time since 1992. After securing his fourth consecutive pole, he was resolved that he was not coming out of Turn One in second place. Team members were privately concerned that a coming together between their two cars was almost inevitable. With Hamilton’s title already secured Rosberg had nothing to lose this time by refusing to back down. Maybe Hamilton had understood this and decided not to force the issue, maybe it was simply that there wasn’t room – but Rosberg went unchallenged into Turn One, Hamilton dutifully tucked in behind. 

The Mercedes advantage was enormous around this track – which was relatively unchanged since the 1990s, save for the loss of the great Peraltada corner at the end of the lap, in its place an infield section through a baseball stadium with towering grandstands that the hugely enthusiastic fans packed to the roofs. Rosberg and Hamilton pulled out a big gap over Kvyat’s Red Bull. Hamilton would occasionally close up on the leader but Rosberg always had a response. Soon Hamilton was complaining that it was impossible to pass, that he couldn’t get close enough on the final turn to make a run down the pit straight and the DRS zone. The team left him out for an extra two laps after Rosberg’s tyre change to see if he had greater pace. He didn’t, and remained behind his team-mate after they’d both stopped. 

Mercedes then set about pulling out more than 25 seconds over Kvyat in order that it could make precautionary second stops without losing position. With that gap established, Rosberg was brought in. Hamilton was supposed to come in on the next lap but didn’t. He wanted to go to the end on this set – thereby hoping to ‘steal’ what had been Rosberg’s race from the start. The team insisted, Hamilton duly came in a lap late and insisted in turn that it had been the wrong call. This time post-race it was Hamilton’s turn to be grumpy as his team-mate celebrated. Kvyat was denied a podium by a late-race safety car restart that left him literally powerless to hold off the more powerful Williams-Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas.

“You should ask Toto about what they have to do to keep Nico happy,” said the second-place finisher afterwards, somewhat uncharitably.  

Brazil

Five consecutive Rosberg poles, even if it was only by 0.08sec this time. Hamilton had arrived at Interlagos fending off questions about an early-hours road car scrape in Monaco. As they raced up to the Senna Esses for the first time, Rosberg on the inside, Hamilton veered aggressively towards the sister Mercedes. Rosberg stayed just where he was, and Hamilton swerved back out of the move. There was no repeat of Austin and Rosberg prevailed for the second consecutive race. 

Hamilton was again complaining about the impossibility of passing as he sat in Rosberg’s DRS zone for 10 laps in the second stint of what was going to be a two-stop race without ever being quite able to launch a passing attempt. 

Hamilton was convinced he was faster, if only he could get by. Rosberg, simply looking after his tyres and doing just enough to stay in front, felt otherwise. In races before the Austin incident Hamilton might have thrown a marginal move down Rosberg’s inside in this situation. But the dynamics had changed. 

Sebastian Vettel was the only one keeping the Mercs vaguely in sight and when Ferrari switched him to a three-stop strategy it allowed Mercedes to do the same. Which rather foiled Hamilton’s plan of trying to beat Rosberg by staying out for a longer middle stint of a two-stop race. Would that have worked? “It looks from the data and from the tyres that came off their cars at the second stops that it would not have done, no,” answered Wolff. “It looks like that would have put Lewis 10 seconds or so further back.”

“Of course he had trouble passing,” said Rosberg. “I was faster.” 

“Contrary to what Nico said, there was a stage where I was all over him,” countered Hamilton, irritably. At this, Rosberg’s expression remained serene. 

“These are two people who have known each other since kids,” says Wolff. “They used to go on holiday together as teenagers. They know each other very well. They know how the other is and it goes in phases how they are with each other. It’s part of my job to keep them both happy.”

Trackside view – Turn 10 & 11, Mexico

Echoes of the past are everywhere around this narrow, old-school track. As it’s about to be re-christened for a new era it’s damp from an earlier shower but sun has broken through, making the fresh, smooth, gripless Tarmac look silver in the backlight – and the cars fishtail by, sun-glint, speed- blur, a flash of green sidewalls: intermediates. 

Through the esses formed by Turns 10 and 11, a Ferrari is silhouetted – Kimi Räikkönen using the car’s super throttle-adjustable attitude: liftoff/step out, power on/step in and he twitches his way through like that in this early exploratory stage, just getting a feel for the (lack of) grip and the track’s rhythm, faltering baby steps in a new tango. Second time through and his slides are more joined up, drifting all four wheels as he powers out of 11. 

Now Sebastian Vettel and he’s keeping the car straight for longer between the S, doing his turn-in all at once, a more geometric approach. This overwhelms those rear tyres very early and the resultant oversteer slides are bigger than Kimi’s who nibbles more on the wheel. 

Max Verstappen looks more at home than anyone else, with aggressive input, punchy power oversteer, treating it like a kart – old-school driving to match the track. The flaring revs of a wailing Mercedes heralds Felipe Massa’s several-handed wrestle with a wayward Williams, a stark contrast to the beautifully throttle-controlled attitude of Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, which is being held on the edge of traction by a delicate right foot. 

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