Four is the score

Hamilton adds another world title to his record as seats and engines are swapped for 2018

The title battle had already collapsed, along with Ferrari’s reliability implosion, as we got to the final four races of the season in the USA, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi. It was a mere formality that Mercedes sealed the constructors' championship in Austin and Lewis Hamilton a fourth drivers’ crown a week later in Mexico City. The interest instead was centred around new drivers in new teams.

Renault had finally reached two settlements: one with Jolyon Palmer to leave short of his allocated contract duration and another with Red Bull for the services ‘on loan’ of Carlos Sainz for the remainder of this season and all of 2018. The Spaniard – who had actually proved very evenly matched with Max Verstappen during their time together at Toro Rosso – had been disappointed when the Red Bull group extended his contract into 2018, implying he would be serving a fourth year in the junior team. Just as he was trying to spread his wings, so he felt they were being clipped. With a suitable financial adjustment from Renault, Dr Helmut Marko was persuaded to see things Carlos’ way – though he remains on a piece of Red Bull elastic.

But at the same time as agreeing to loan out Sainz, the Red Bull group was also about to terminate its agreement with Daniil Kvyat. At the time of the Austrian Grand Prix, the extension of his contract had been described as ‘a formality’. One race later, at Silverstone, he took out himself and Sainz in a first lap accident. All of a sudden it wasn’t such a formality – and his subsequent performances weren’t enough for Marko to keep the faith.

Kvyat – who’d been dropped in Japan to give the next guy on Red Bull’s ladder, Pierre Gasly, his debut – was given a reprieve for Austin as Gasly had a clashing commitment in trying to win the Japanese Super Formula championship (ironically, the race was cancelled for a typhoon). Which still left one Toro Rosso seat to be filled. The recruitment came from left-field: former (and about to be again) WEC world champion, Brendon Hartley. At 27 years old, he would be a mature rookie. He’d once been a Red Bull junior driver but was dropped mid-season 2010, having been dominated in Formula Renault 3.5 by his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. Second chances rarely happen, especially at Red Bull – but here it was. With a deal for just one race initially, Hartley would subsequently secure the drive for the balance of the season, and for 2018 too. So he surrendered his 2018 Ganassi Indycar deal and began to focus on the F1 career he’d long assumed wasn’t going to happen.

It was an intense period for the Red Bull contracts team for in Austin it was announced, to the surprise of the paddock, that Max Verstappen’s agreement had been extended by two years to the end of 2020. “Max and Ricciardo could have been free after 2018,” explained Marko, “so we tried to secure at least one driver and Max asked if he could make a deal to 2020. Ricciardo was putting himself on the market but now we are talking with him.”

Indeed, 2019 marks the first time in Ricciardo’s career that he is potentially a free agent – and he remains keen to test the water. “The intention is absolutely to have Daniel continue,” said the senior team’s boss Christian Horner. As for the Verstappen deal, “It wasn’t cheap but not the most expensive we’ve ever done.” So although Verstappen’s services may have been secured for less than those of Vettel in his title-winning pomp, it was rumoured that the contract multiplied Verstappen’s previous 5 million Euro per annum deal by a factor of four.

At Williams, speculation continued to rage about who would be driving in 2018 alongside Lance Stroll. Felipe Massa, having been retired and unretired by the team last year, was being retired once more, it seemed. Although Williams insisted he was in contention for the seat (along with Robert Kubica, Paul di Resta and Pascal Wehrlein), he was demanding to be informed before the Brazilian Grand Prix in order to know if it was his final home race or not. He got his wish – and his retirement announcement, effective at the end of the year, came between the American and Mexican races. Kubica was to test the 2017 Williams (he’d tested the 2014 car a few weeks earlier) at Abu Dhabi after the final race. Williams insisted no deal had been done. A contract had been offered, we understand, but the component of the salary that was retainer – as opposed to percentage of the sponsorship money that he brought – was less than would be needed to be paid back to the insurance company that had paid out on the ending of his F1 career.

USA, AUSTIN

Hamilton secured his fifth Austin victory, chasing and catching early leader Vettel (whose Ferrari was compromised with the wrong corner weight settings) while Verstappen completed a charging drive from a penalised grid position by taking third place from Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari three corners from home. He had, however, driven off the circuit to do it – and was thus penalised back down to fourth.

Sainz made a superb impression on his Renault debut, making Q3 with ease, passing Sergio Perez (who had undercut ahead) by forcing the Mexican to over-use his tyres and then pressuring the other Force India of Esteban Ocon for sixth until the end. But it was impossible to make a comparison with his team mate, on account of Nico Hulkenberg’s 20-place grid penalty and early retirement.

Kvyat – in what turned out to be his last race for Toro Rosso – was in fine form, driving with aggression and precision and flattering the car in qualifying 11th. He scored a 10th-place point in the race, but delivered too late to save his drive, and possibly his F1 career. Hartley, with no preparation and fresh from a very different category, trailed Kvyat by 0.8sec in qualifying, admitting to finding it difficult to judge how much more grip was available from new tyres. He showed promising pace in the race before getting stuck behind Stroll’s Williams.

MEXICO, MEXICO CITY

The pole-setting Ferrari of Vettel went three-abreast into turn one with Verstappen and Hamilton – and only Verstappen came out the other side undamaged. And in the lead. That was the foundation for the 20-year-old’s second victory of the season, his no-compromise aggression and racecraft at the core of his achievement, and justifying again why Red Bull had paid so much to keep him from their rivals. Hamilton punctured a tyre on Vettel’s front wing, giving them both pit stops and busy recovery drives. Hamilton’s ninth place was enough to secure him a Vettel-equalling fourth world championship.

As for Sainz and Hartley, it was a weekend of promise but ultimately frustration. The Renault driver just lost out in a super-close contest with Hulkenberg, qualifying their Renaults eighth and ninth. They were running an early fourth and fifth in the race before a power steering problem began giving Sainz strange feedback – leading him to complete a high-speed 360-degree spin.

Hartley had qualified his Toro Rosso into Q2 with ease, having split the two Williams in Q1. He was just beginning his Q2 lap when a turbo let go. “I’m feeling much more confident on the new tyres than in Austin,” he beamed. “If Austin was a tough ask, I’ve come here a lot more prepared.” He’d be starting at the back with engine penalties again.

In the race Hartley’s replacement Renault motor let go after 30 laps – just as Hulkenberg’s had done earlier.

BRAZIL, INTERLAGOS 

With Hamilton starting from the pitlane after a crash on the first lap of qualifying, Vettel won after out-racing the pole-sitting Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas into the Senna Esses. Taking full advantage of a fresh engine, Hamilton raced through to fourth place, but had run out of tyre grip by the time he reached Raikkonen a few laps from the end. As the possibility loomed of Lewis winning from the back, Ferrari was working with Vettel in not taking too much from his tyres while staying out of Bottas’ reach – just in case Hamilton should have arrived on his tail near the end.

Renault admitted that increasing its turbo speed to compensate for the thin atmosphere of Mexico City had played a significant part in the repeated ERS-h failures there. For Brazil it had opted to be more conservative. Which put the engine at even more of a disadvantage to the Mercedes and Ferrari units than usual. GPS readings suggested that it was some 60bhp down on Mercedes at Interlagos. But even these precautions were not enough to prevent Hartley’s engine expiring just as he reached the bottom of the pit exit lane to begin first practice. A scavenge pump was cited as the problem. As well as ensuring he’d again be taking engine penalties and this time starting from the back, it also in initiated a war of words between Toro Rosso’s frustrated team principal Franz Tost and Renault Sport MD Cyril Abiteboul. Things were hardly eased when Hartley retired from the race when his engine began consuming oil at an alarming rate.

The works cars qualified eighth and ninth in the hands of Hulkenberg and Sainz respectively, the latter getting caught up in a territorial dispute with the crowd’s farewell hero Massa. This niggled on into the first lap of the race where Sainz was hung out to dry by the Williams over the kerb of turn two. This not only lost Sainz the momentum that had just taken him past Hulkenberg but also damaged the Renault’s floor. This in addition to the detuned motor meant only an 11th place for Sainz, albeit just behind Hulkenberg.

Massa delivered one of his best drives of the season in his final Interlagos appearance, finishing a feisty seventh – the best of the rest after the big three teams – after sustaining race-long pressure from the McLaren of Fernando Alonso.

ABU DHABI, YAS MARINA

In the dullest race of the year, Bottas won from his second consecutive pole, with team-mate Hamilton in his slipstream the whole race but unable to find a way by. With Vettel needing to finish eighth or above to prevent Bottas denying him runner-up in the championship, Ferrari ran his race very conservatively. Together with some judicious fuel-saving, it meant Vettel’s third place was a distant one.

Hartley for the fourth time in four races took grid penalties for replacement Renault engine components, starting from the back. To say that Toro Rosso was looking forward to working with Honda would be an understatement. At McLaren they were greatly looking forward to leaving Honda and working with Renault…

Renault overtook Toro Rosso for sixth in the championship, costing the latter team around $10 million. This was courtesy of Hulkenberg’s sixth-place finish behind the big three teams. Team-mate Sainz was on course for ninth but retired because a front wheel had not been tightened properly at his pit stop. Toro Rosso did not have the pace to counter the works Renaults – though Hartley did at least finish this time, in 15th, one ahead of team-mate Gasly.

Massa bowed out of F1 with a 10th-place finish, on the losing end of another fight with his nemesis Alonso. His Williams would be handled in post-race tests at the circuit by Kubica and young Russian Sergey Sirotkin.

So the 2018 future began to take shape as ’17 was consigned to the history books.

WORD ON THE BEAT

Rumour and gossip from the F1 paddock

There was serious disquiet among the teams as F1’s income decreased for the first time in eight years. The loss of the Malaysian Grand Prix and the reduction in Singapore’s hosting fee are only going to decrease it further. At least five other grand prix promoters are pressing LIBERTY for a reduction in hosting fees. There is a MIAMI GRAND PRIX street race on the horizon (probably for 2019) and continuing talks with organisers in ARGENTINA and NEW YORK, but as yet no solid replacement income. The Long Beach proposal is dead.

“I’d like to see a cheap, standard V12 engine at 1000hp, sounding fantastic – but I doubt we’re going to get that,” said CHRISTIAN HORNERin Mexico on the eve of Liberty’s presentation on the engine formula from 2021 ONWARDS. He was right… Preliminary plans are for the existing single-turbo V6s, without the ERS-h component, increased fuel flow that will require them to be revved higher and a greater proportion of standardised parts.

Perennial clown DANIEL RICCIARDO, sharing the Thursday Abu Dhabi press conference with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, commented: “Between the three of us we have eight world titles – so it’s pretty good!”

HAMILTON on his future with MERCEDES after his current contract expires at the end of next year: “We already have something great in place and it is really just about extending it and enhancing it and working on what more I can do for them and vice versa. But I am pretty sure within the next month or so we would have time to sit down. I’m still going to be here next year and I hope for a little time beyond that.”

In Brazil MEN WITH GUNS help up several team members as they left the track on Friday evening. Members of the MERCEDES team were forced to hand over money and valuables, with a gun held to one team member’s head. FIA press delegate MATTEO BONCIANI had a gun pointed at his passenger door window, and a gunman approached a car with WILLIAMSpersonnel inside before the traffic lights changed and allowed their escape. On Saturday evening members of the SAUBER team had to make good their escape from gunmen and on Sunday night an attempt was made to hold up the PIRELLI minibus, leading the tyre firm to cancel the planned test at the track the following week. With the race’s future uncertain – it is currently contracted until 2020 – and no Brazilian drivers on the grid next year, such incidents do not help its cause.

ROSS BRAWN on F1 cost control plans: “if you are going to have a cost-control system, then having the FIA being able to implement and regulate that is the surest way of having the confidence that it is being applied fairly and consistently through all the teams. That’s a very complicated thing to achieve, but if you look at the complexity of the technical regulations in F1, we argue about them often but they are the core of having F1 function. And I see no reason why there shouldn’t be the same process on the financial regulations, where we have a financial working group who works with the FIA and ourselves to evolve the financial regulations.”

TRACKSIDE VIEW SENNA ESSES

Some prime real estate at Interlagos that everyone wants

Halfway down the steep hill of the Senna Esses there’s a sweet spot of tarmac about a metre square. It’s here that you ideally need your car to be just as it’s finished the downhill adventure that is turn one, with the weight across the axles equalised once more, the tyres no longer squished, ready for a full uncompromised onslaught on turn two at the bottom of the hill.

But it’s much easier said than done, especially on this Friday morning with its gusty winds, running up through the corridor formed by the site’s depression from the north-east, up through turn four, like a mischievous dervish. It’s hot here now, but there’s a cold front coming our way and these gusts are its advance troops. On maybe 75 per cent of the laps there’s little discernible crosswind and the driver gets to feel the car’s natural balance. But on the other occasions, the car just makes no sense; either its front end wipes out into T1 and you’re skating across the tarmac run-off or it stalls the rear wing and gives you an oversteer moment. Either way, you miss that sweet spot of tarmac.

Some cars are struggling to hit it even on the wind-free laps, notably the Mercedes which looks a little languid and unresponsive here, wanting to understeer wide out of T1 and therefore at a shallow angle of attack for T2. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are responding to this trait in very different ways, the former going with it, trimming his entry speed down just enough to keep the front in check and therefore some momentum up. Bottas, by contrast, is man-handling it, aggressive steering and throttle inputs in conjunction upsetting the rear to get that rotation onto the car. Sometimes it works. Bottas, incidentally, makes quite the most outrageously aggressive exit from the pitlane, sideways and leaving black lines in his wake at the top of the hill, 20 degrees out of line at the bottom, the big car’s left rear only a foot or so from the barrier.

Max Verstappen is similarly punchy but in a Red Bull that looks more co-operative. Still decelerating hard as he enters from the end of the pit straight, the downforce appears to be bleeding off more at the rear than the front and the car is in a nice shallow, stable, oversteer, making it easier for him to get to that first apex, from where it’s a straightforward ride to that sweet spot of tarmac.

The Ferrari looks similarly malleable here, though needs more steering into that first apex – it isn’t drifting naturally into it like the Red Bull. Felipe Massa is using a series of bullying little nudges to make the Williams co-operate, but those inputs are occasionally too successful in using the rear to rotate the car and he will get a full oversteer moment that takes him way out wide.

Fernando Alonso is experimenting in the McLaren. On one occasion he compromises his speed into turn one to get a deeper, wider approach for two, allowing him to get on the gas earlier. It goes well – until he gets on the exit kerb and the wheelspin suddenly spools up the engine, delivering a great heap of unwanted torque, and in a blink he’s wrestling an emergency tank slapper. He goes back to the conventional approach next lap. And so they all go, playing in the wind.