F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

2016 Grand Prix review: How Rosberg finally ended his Hamilton jinx

A different Mercedes world champion. Nico Rosberg had to keep his frustration under control right through to the final lap of the closing race in Abu Dhabi – as Lewis Hamilton tried desperately to back him up into the advancing Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull: it wasn’t enough for Hamilton to win the final race, he needed his Mercedes rival to finish fourth.

Backing Rosberg into the jaws of the Ferrari and Red Bull while winning the race himself was the only possible way Hamilton could clinch a fourth world championship  – and the Mercedes pit wall was not a happy place. Paddy Lowe gave Hamilton a direct instruction to pick up the pace, Hamilton declined to co-operate and Rosberg suggested the team do something. This game of nerve provided a thrilling if controversial finale to the 2016 world championship but it was set in place five races earlier.

Where we left our battling Mercedes title contenders last month was with Hamilton 33 points down on Rosberg after the latter had won at Suzuka. That was a lot for Hamilton to make up in just four races. Essentially, he needed to win Austin, Mexico City, Interlagos and Abu Dhabi and even then Rosberg needed only three seconds and a third.

Hamilton had blown his start in Japan – just as he had in Melbourne, Bahrain and Monza. So when asked, after having set pole in Austin, if he was not nervous it could all happen again, his reply – “I can guarantee that’s not going to happen” – sounded more than just bravado. He’d been trying out a new clutch paddle on the back of his steering wheel, thicker and with a bigger sweep of movement. It gave a finer-honed feel for the bite point, a greater sense of control. He got off the line just fine and went on to an untroubled victory. But review footage of that start as they charge towards that wonderfully steep hill preceding Turn One and you will notice Rosberg has made an even better one from the other side of the front row. What he did next was illuminating.    

Rosberg, rather than use his greater momentum to fight out the turn – the very same place at which Hamilton had barged him onto the outside kerb one year earlier – blended early out of the gas. So much so that Daniel Ricciardo got his Red Bull sufficiently alongside to fight out Turn Two, winning the position by cutting Nico in tight on the fast downhill right-hander, forcing him to lift briefly. Rosberg would later get that position back thanks to a fortuitously timed virtual safety car (for Max Verstappen, whose car had stopped after he broke its transmission during a pit stop he hadn’t been requested to make). But the significant point was Rosberg choosing not to take on Hamilton wheel to wheel. His points position allowed him that luxury – and unless he could outqualify and outsprint Hamilton off the line (as he had done in Suzuka), he wasn’t going to risk it. 

Mexico was much the same, except that Hamilton’s start was actually better than Rosberg’s this time. A snatching cold brake disc sent Lewis spearing off on the grass without losing him the lead, but any advantage he gained was nullified by a first-lap safety car. Hamilton’s only jeopardy was whether the tyre he’d flat-spotted would survive long enough to allow him to remain on a race-winning strategy, to avoid being undercut by either Rosberg or Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (who’d made contact at least once as Rosberg tried to remain ahead). Hamilton’s tyre held on, Rosberg only got Verstappen out of his hair after the Red Bull driver had made a super-late lunge down the inside of Turn Four but locked up and oversteered out wide, the best of his tyres now spent. By the end, both Mercedes drivers were well clear of the argy-bargy behind them between Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo, which gave us three different third-place finishers – across the line, on the podium and in the official results once the inevitable penalties had been applied.

Verstappen’s star shone even brighter in rain-drenched Brazil – but Hamilton dominated totally. He absolutely had to win each of these races and there was a surety about him once the purity of the task became clear. Rosberg, his task equally clearly defined, drove like an immaculate, bug-free software programme. Having failed by just a tenth to take pole, he didn’t fight it out with Hamilton on any of the five rolling starts behind the safety car – and conspicuously failed to react when Verstappen drove clean around his outside in Turn Three, Max using the outside wet lines he’d practised in the interminable laps behind the safety car. For Rosberg the potential downsides of trying to race either of these two were massively outweighed by the potentially small upside. Could Hamilton have been so disciplined in the same situation? That’s not how he rolls. For a while Verstappen even began gaining on Hamilton until suffering the mother and father of an aquaplaning moment at the top of the hill, somehow rescuing the car from 90-degrees broadside at 160mph within the width of the track. Rosberg seemed reluctant to try to capitalise – and on the following lap Verstappen went around a full second faster than him. Eventually, trying a strategic throw of the dice for victory, Red Bull brought him in for inters. The rain continued to fall and before it was too late he was back in for another set of wets – leaving him 14th with just 16 laps to go. Inventing some overtaking moves never before seen around Interlagos he finished a thrilling third, leaving observers making comparisons with Senna and Schumacher. Rosberg dropped 11.5sec in the last 16 laps to Hamilton, but took the 18 points just the same. This was how Niki Lauda used to win titles. 

Hamilton’s time to get strategic came only in the Abu Dhabi finale. How to win the race but cause interference with Rosberg’s – somehow to get him demoted from second to fourth. It seemed improbable that the race would even pan out with everyone in the right place to do that. Hamilton burst into the lead in the desert evening – then cruised. Verstappen was nudged into a first-corner spin – and that actually put into place a brilliant strategy for him. Forced to run his first stint long to recover places, he maintained a consistent enough speed – because Hamilton was keeping the pace at the front so slow – to leapfrog past most of those he didn’t overtake, including team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferraris. 

Vettel’s strategy was the opposite to Verstappen’s – an early first stop and a late enough second – that he could get onto the faster super-soft tyres and hunt down the five cars ahead of him. Again, made more feasible by how Hamilton was holding the race hostage with his moderate pace. So Seb charged through, was given a clear passage by Räikkönen, nailed a simple DRS move on Ricciardo and a slightly tougher one on Verstappen – and there they all were with three laps still to run, four cars all lined up in one frame, the leader looking in his mirrors, eyes looking backwards, ears shut tight to the radio instructions. His plan didn’t work, Vettel couldn’t quite get a run on Rosberg up the DRS zone, his traction not good enough out of Turn Seven.    

So even under provocation, Hamilton-Rosberg still didn’t go wheel to wheel. Their battle tended to be more mathematical, especially in these late stages. But at least they were allowed to fight and for that we should be thankful, for there was still no competition for Mercedes in the third year of this formula. Red Bull got closer, Ferrari dropped further away but the advantage remained overwhelming.

It was the most convincing of Mercedes’ recent title-winning campaign, the team winning 19 of the 21 races – shades of McLaren’s 15 from 16 in 1988 – and was on pole for 20 of them, invariably locking out the front row. The championship for constructors was beyond rivals’ reach after Japan, race 17.

Three successive years with the same title protagonists in the same team made it easy to overlook some amazing performances, especially from Hamilton. The level he’s got to, the way he allied experience to the still breathtaking control and feel suggests he’s somewhere around his absolute peak. He lost the title to three key mechanical failures. 

Hamilton has now won 53 GPs and set 61 poles, the latter just seven short of equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record. Other statistics confirm the underlying performance pattern between the two drivers. Taking out those races where unreliability meant no comparison was possible, Hamilton beat Rosberg 10 times and Rosberg beat Hamilton 6 times. In qualifying it was 12-5 in Hamilton’s favour.  

Although the lines Hamilton had drawn in the sand left Rosberg unwilling to go wheel to wheel with him when it wasn’t necessary, earlier in the season – when the route to the title was not yet defined – Nico twice refused to back down. The consequences were the collisions of Barcelona and Austria. 

This time, unlike at Spa ’14, he remained unrepentant. Not chastened, merely wary but determined. He fought the battle his own way, and although he got much the better rub of the green on reliability he maximised it clinically. On the rare Hamilton off-days – Baku (where Lewis crashed in qualifying) and Singapore – Rosberg was scintillating. More usually, he was as good as he needed to be, totally relaxed in his skin and psychologically unbeatable even when beaten on track. It was by far his best season.  

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The opening-lap Barcelona accident between the Mercedes drivers paved the way for Verstappen to win first time out for Red Bull, a quite remarkable story, an even more remarkable racing driver. It’s not just his speed and racecraft, but his attitude that has lit up F1, challenged its mores. He doesn’t accept anything: that it’s not possible to brake that late to attempt a pass and still make the corner. Or the etiquette agreed by generations of F1 drivers over the years that you don’t move in the braking area. Or criticism from anyone – he was twice rounded upon by most of the seniors at driver briefings and it made not the slightest impact on his assessment of being in the right, or on his performance. 

His wheel-to-wheel judgment is incredibly fine-honed. When he chops, there’s not a spare millimetre or millisecond. Kimi Räikkönen reckoned he shouldn’t have been forced to brake and steer at 200mph on the Kemmel straight to avoid contact – and he’s right. But regardless of the ethics, Verstappen’s intuitive feel for speed and space was spectacular. 

The others say he’s out of line. He just believes his line is different. And he still does that trick of passing from way back so that the other guy isn’t even aware until he sees him in his peripheral, the move already done. As demonstrated on team-mate Ricciardo on lap two at the Rindt Kurve, for example. 

His crowning glory came in the Interlagos rain and from the perspective of that and the army of fans he is switching onto the sport, it’s easy to concur when Bernie Ecclestone says, “Thank God for Verstappen.” This magnificent, mercurial minor who cannot hire a road car for another two years in most countries is rewriting the rulebook – literally. A new ‘Verstappen rule’ was introduced from Austin, prohibiting moves in the braking zone. First to fall foul of it was Sebastian Vettel in Mexico, in a situation inevitably instigated by Verstappen. Change the rules, he’ll slide around it. He’s unstoppable. But not unbeatable. His sophomore season could still be identified as such with the multiple incidents at Monaco and the ‘ghost’ pit stop in Austin. But make no mistake: he’s coming, even if – in 2016 – Ricciardo was a stronger performer through the season (see driver panel). 

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Ferrari’s line-up also proved very closely matched, Sebastian Vettel generally ahead in the season’s first half, Räikkönen in the second. Of much more concern to the team was its wholesale failure to challenge Mercedes, following on from the triple victory promise of 2015. The car – with better overbody aerodynamics from a tighter, repackaged rear and enhanced underbody from a much shorter nose, pushed along by a more powerful version of what was already a strong engine – was a good performance step on from the 2015 car. Just not enough. Yet greater gains had been made at Mercedes and Red Bull/Renault Sport. It also suffered from a weak gearbox – on four occasions its drivers would take five-place grid penalties for a replacement – and the team never did get a proper handle on the way it used the tricky Pirellis. 

Under the aggressive direction of Sergio Marchionne, the pressure upon the team was enormous and lay at the root of the friction with technical director James Allison who, in addition, suffered a personal tragedy on the eve of the season with his wife’s sudden passing. The gains made with the car during the off-season had given the technical department real cause for optimism, but as Allison was pointing out, that meant nothing until they knew the gains made by the competition. So it proved to be. Asked, in essence, to provide a new timetable of success, Allison – struggling to cope with his loss – failed to get the boss to see things his way and they reached a mutual agreement in July. Former engine chief Mattia Binotto took over in an acting capacity, but Allison’s departure came as a real blow to Vettel and it wasn’t difficult to see his building frustration as his Ferrari dream collapsed around him. 

The pressure told upon the pit wall, too, and some bizarre calls were made that arguably lost it the opportunity of victories in both Melbourne and Montréal. But even the more routine calls were often questionable, with Vettel coming to query them over the radio – and often directing them to a better one. The core of the team was still solid, but placing pressure on people without them having control of the variables is rarely an effective route to efficiency.

Vettel seemed to take on the team’s internal turmoil whereas Räikkönen appeared barely to notice. Getting changes to his engineering back-up was also instrumental in a turnaround in form that – probably co-incidentally – began just as the extension of his deal for a further 12 months was confirmed at Silverstone. Thereafter he was more often the slightly quicker Ferrari driver in qualifying, completing his renaissance. 

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Technically, apart from the impressive continuing gains in the power units, 2016 was all about who could best adapt their cars to the often contrary behaviour of the tyres at the very high minimum pressures (and small camber angles) imposed by Pirelli since the Spa 2015 blow-outs. The reduced contact patch makes it even more difficult to generate temperature in the tyre’s core as the lateral grip is reduced, but at the same time tends to overwork the compound’s surface. So an undertemperature core and an overheated surface became quite a common complaint and the rubber became more sensitive than ever to track temperatures. As such, keeping the car balanced between front and rear across the whole spectrum of corner speeds became yet more valuable than before. Mercedes and Red Bull did the best job in this, albeit through very different aero philosophies.

Mercedes pursued an aggressive concept in configuring the W07. “In 2015 it had been relatively straightforward to do a second lap around the original car of ’14, just improving the integration aspects,” explained Paddy Lowe. “But that approach wouldn’t have yielded much with a third iteration and therefore we had to be more innovative.” This centred around the car’s ‘W-floor’, whereby an intricate arrangement of vanes ahead of each sidepod filtered off some of the airflow and fed it to the underbody. Conventionally, aerodynamicists go to a lot of trouble to prevent outer body airflow from seeping into the underfloor area and creating turbulence. The achievement of the aero team at Brackley was in feeding extra energy into the airflow of the underfloor without introducing the turbulence. 

Red Bull went further down the high-rake path, completely reconfiguring the front suspension to facilitate this. If this can be achieved without the downforce at the rear bleeding away at low speeds, it energises the whole car aerodynamically, effectively making the floor itself more of a diffuser. Keeping the rear underbody airflow attached at big ride heights was relatively simple to achieve in the days of exhaust-blown diffusers, but is less straightforward under these regulations – and this is where the Red Bull aero department succeeded spectacularly with the RB12.

Both cars also featured extraordinary sophistication in the variability of the suspension rate through several different planes, allowing them to optimise the aerodynamic platforms through a wide variety of corners. “If drivers from the past got into these cars they’d been mind-blown by how well balanced they are,” claims Lowe. “The degree to which we’re tailoring the aero and mechanical platform almost corner by corner means you can get to a point in the weekend where the driver is saying, ‘There’s nothing to tune. It’s perfectly balanced,’ whereas 20 years ago you had to take a really very crude approximation of getting a balance at as many corners as possible while accepting the others would be rubbish.”

These cars were essentially using sophistication in the hydraulic valving of the heave spring and how it interacted with the rest of the suspension to do what the now-banned FRICS used to in optimising the aero platform in all situations. 

Red Bull was further boosted by the efficiency gains in the Renault motor’s combustion chambers together with changes to the turbo’s design. There was a further 0.3sec gain when, in Monaco, the TJI (turbulent jet ignition) technology was introduced, similar to that already used by Mercedes and Ferrari whereby the mixture is ignited in a mini-chamber, the jets of flames then shooting out through orifices connecting the mini chamber to the main combustion chamber (the same orifices through which the mixture had been forced under pressure milliseconds earlier) to give a much more efficient burn.     

Mercedes and Red Bull both had a great handle on the tyre traits, as did Force India, something that allowed the 360-strong team to beat the identically powered Williams-Mercedes to fourth place in the constructors championship.

Understanding how to get heat into the tyres, how to take it away, balancing the core temperatures with those of the tread and the effect of track temperatures on the whole mechanism through a huge variety of corner types and track surfaces was a science in itself – and the big teams now have specific tyre departments. They work hand in hand with race engineers, designers and vehicle dynamicists. Intricate brake ducting is used to put heat into the wheel rims and from there into the tyres. Getting them quickly up to temperature (and pressure) allowed a ruse that partly got around the high minimum pressures. What Pirelli suspected teams were doing was under-pressuring, then using the heat from wheel rims heated by the tyre blankets to transfer the heat and temporarily increase the pressure above the minimum long enough for them to be checked just prior to the lap to the grid. Then a slow formation lap would bring the temperatures and pressures back down. That game was busted when Pirelli began checking the pressures before the wheels went onto the car.  

The underlying problem continued to be the heat-degrading mechanism of the Pirellis and how that determined that the quickest way to run a race distance was usually to drive slowly… up to 2sec off the pace. Go faster than that and the rubber tended to fry and become gripless, regardless of how much tread remained – and would stay like that, with no way of bringing it back. So once, say, Hamilton found himself 15sec behind Rosberg after making a bad start at Monza, that gap was essentially frozen. Push any harder and the rubber would begin to overheat, risking permanent damage. So those races where a fast guy is delayed then carves his way through the field – the sort of drives that create legends – have become a thing of the past, in the dry at least. There was the occasional time when the track didn’t induce the phenomenon – and the final stint of Montréal, for example, produced a thrilling flat-out contest between Hamilton and a chasing Vettel and they seemed genuinely exhilarated afterwards. But such events were rare. 

Furthermore, there was profound criticism of the standard issue wet-weather tyre, Vettel describing it as “the safety car tyre”, and saying it wasn’t fit for much else. It struggled to clear standing water without aquaplaning and this was the reason that wet starts tended to be behind the safety car. Previous generations of wet tyres could operate in conditions wetter than those at which this one became almost uncontrollable. The Brazilian Grand Prix demonstrated this in a terrifying way. Räikkönen aquaplaned out of control and F1 dodged a bullet as Esteban Ocon reacted just in time to the stationary, forward-facing Ferrari that appeared out the gloom as he nudged 200mph… 

The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, in previous years directing its complaints behind closed doors, went public early in the season. This was ostensibly triggered by how the governing process had failed the sport again by not allowing the flawed elimination-style qualifying introduced at Melbourne to be abolished for the next race. But while the drivers were about it, they listed a few of their other gripes. These included a need to react to the changing media landscape in order to attract new fans, a shake-up of the decision-making process and a thinly veiled sideswipe at “partners and suppliers” otherwise known as Pirelli. 

So there’s much that still needs fixing, but much that remains wonderful as the sport continues to evolve. Shortly after Monza it was announced that agreement had been reached for Liberty Media, an American company, to buy CVC’s controlling interest in the sport’s commercial rights. A more holistic, joined-up overview of where F1 is going would seem to be coming with that development as the sport adapts to a world that’s changing faster than ever before. It’s going to take a few months yet for the deal to be concluded, during which time Ecclestone continues to call the shots.

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Another marker of the passage of time was the departure as McLaren’s CEO Ron Dennis immediately after the penultimate race, victim of a boardroom feud between him and fellow shareholder Mansour Ojjeh. It was quite a tragic Shakespearean tale and it seems Dennis may be about to declare war on the team in which he retains a 25 per cent stake. Only a couple of months earlier he’d stood proud as he oversaw, at Monza, the announcement of Jenson Button’s future for the next two years and the instalment of Stoffel Vandoorne. At the final race JB was keen to point out that he was essentially retiring to be a paid ambassador for the team and didn’t expect to be back on the grid in 2018. There were still moments of magic from him in his final season – on intermediates in Hungary he was third fastest during Q3 – but the performance was less sustained than last year, something made glaringly obvious by Fernando Alonso’s continued raging against the odds. 

On track the McLaren-Hondas had improved significantly since 2015, with vastly more efficient energy harvesting and deployment from a turbo redesign. They were regular lower Q3 qualifiers in the season’s second half. But the engine remained down on power, its ‘size zero’ concept with the turbo between the vee revealed to be obsolete as the improved conversion efficiency of the recovered energy began to justify bigger turbines and compressors – like those introduced by Mercedes and Ferrari – than could be fitted into such a space.

Button was joined in retirement at the end of the year by Felipe Massa, though like Jenson his final season wasn’t much to write home about. The Williams was less competitive than it had been and Felipe was less competitive relative to Valtteri Bottas than in the previous couple of seasons. But there was great affection for him, shown to powerful effect at Interlagos. 

Losing out to Force India for fourth was a serious underperformance from Williams and internal changes are on the way. Force India demonstrated how a small team could benefit from the assets of much larger entities – the Toyota wind tunnel, the gearbox from Mercedes, not just the engine – to concentrate on its aero and tyre usage. That and a driver in Sergio Pérez who has a great feel for the rubber helped the team punch above its weight. 

Taking Force India’s philosophy to extremes, and relying on outside parties (Dallara) to design and build the car, with the help of Ferrari’s wind tunnel and staff, the Haas team enjoyed a successful, solidly mid-grid, first season – though 62 per cent of its points came in the first two races courtesy of Romain Grosjean. Toro Rosso’s season was compromised by its late-notice change to 2015 Ferrari engines compromising the car’s concept and leaving it progressively more outpowered. But it was again aerodynamically excellent and Carlos Sainz produced several stand-out performances, albeit often beneath the radar. Renault was in recovery mode and only rarely got its repainted and re-engined Lotus E23 among the midfield, where Jolyon Palmer established his F1 credentials after a tough beginning. Sauber was rescued from oblivion mid-season by new owners – with Felipe Nasr’s two points in Brazil putting the team ahead of Manor, where Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon showed themselves to be drivers of great promise. 

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It’s clear F1 is in a period of transition – but to what? Electric racing continues to gain traction and Mercedes has reserved a place in Formula E for the future. As the automotive industry plans around a full-scale move to electricity or fuel cells, it begs the question of whether it’s time to snap the tenuous link between road cars and F1 or embrace it further. Hybrids are only a transient stage in automotive evolution so it seems pointless that F1 stays there in the long term. Would F1 be being brave in cutting those ties, or in trying to get a huge (but declining) fanbase to embrace an F1 without one of its constituent thrills, the noise? Should it be hardcore or corporate? We know which we’d prefer.