Grand Prix notebook

Rd 5 Catalunya, May 11 2014

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 – 1hr 39min 42.743sec
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 – 1hr 39min 43.828sec
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 – 1hr 40min 06.810sec

Fastest lap Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull RB10 – 1min 28.918sec
Race distance 66 laps, 190.825 miles
Pole position Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes W05 – 1min 25.232sec

So it continues: Mercedes domination, the Lewis Hamilton/Nico Rosberg struggle for supremacy. In many ways this race was a repeat of Bahrain, with Hamilton in front but Rosberg on faster tyres coming back at him in the closing stages. Although the pair were frequently separated by less than a second and crossed the line just 0.6sec apart, Hamilton ahead to take win number four from five, it was tense and strategic, without the wheel-to-wheel thrill of their dice two races earlier. But it could have gone that way at any moment: Hamilton locking up into turn 10 two laps from the end might have allowed Rosberg the chink of opportunity he needed, but it was at an awkward part of the track for passing and Lewis ensured he covered off the consequences of the error, running out to the far outside of the exit and thereby being on the advantageous inside for the looping turn 12.

He’d by this time requested that his engineer stop talking to him, as he concentrated only on the fight with his team-mate. In some ways Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting by proxy, as extensions to their sides of the Mercedes garage. It was fascinating listening in to the two halves of the team competing against each other – “Nico, you need to get the gap down to Lewis to 2sec by the end of this stint” and, at much the same time, beginning the crucial middle phase, “Lewis, you need to increase the gap over Nico by about 4sec in this stint” – especially so, as this is the destiny of the world title being decided. Because the rest are nowhere: Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren are the only other three teams equipped and financed to mount a serious title bid and, around Barcelona, the most aerodynamically demanding venue on the calendar, they qualified respectively 1sec, 1.9sec and 2.1sec per lap slower than the dominant W05s. At the end of 66 laps the best Red Bull was third, 49sec behind, the Ferraris were fifth and sixth, one of them lapped, the other one almost. The McLarens raced hard to take 11th and 12th, one lap plus an extra half-minute adrift.

This dominance by one team has created pressures – both within Mercedes and among its competitors. At Ferrari, more details emerged about the change of management a few weeks earlier. The new team principal Marco Mattiacci – formerly CEO of Ferrari North America – was in fact the choice of Fiat’s chairman John Elkann, the dynamic 38-year-old American grandson of late Fiat heir Gianni Agnelli. Fiat retains the whip hand at Ferrari, but it’s not an influence that was pursued when things were going well. The mediocre form of the F14T in the early races, following the title drought since 2007, changed all that. Pressure was applied down the line: from Elkann to di Montezemolo to team principal Stefano Domenicali, who in turn was under pressure to fire someone from the engine department. When he refused and instead tendered his resignation, Elkann is said to have presented di Montezemolo with his new team principal as a fait accompli. In the Italian corporate way, di Montezemolo was allowed to present the appointment as his idea. At Barcelona Mattiacci silently sat alongside while di Montezemolo, who’d flown in for the second time in four races, outlined what was being done in response to Mercedes (see Ferrari feature on page 36).

At McLaren meanwhile Eric Boullier has been overseeing a similar ‘root and branch’ review of how the team works at the factory.

A committee overseen by technical director Tim Goss has been partially dismantled in an effort to free up ideas transfer and feedback. There is clearly something wrong when a team with such resources and facilities has delivered a car with aero numbers considerably worse than those of the car from the much smaller Lotus team, from which Boullier arrived. Around the fast curves and long straight of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, those aero numbers told more than ever. Jenson Button did well to get into Q3 but, more than 2sec adrift of Lewis Hamilton’s pole time, he would only have scoffed had he heard Hamilton’s complaints about how his W05 was not handling as well as it had on Friday. These two cars have the same Mercedes power units, let us not forget – though Ron Dennis believes that they are losing as much as 40bhp simply through fuel. McLaren relies on its long-time supplier Mobil, but the works team’s fuel partner Petronas developed the engine from its concept stage. The concurrent development of fuel and lubricants has become vastly more significant in the new turbo era.

Red Bull consolidated its status as best of the rest, with Daniel Ricciardo qualifying and finishing third. But that has to count as a disappointment – certainly for the team and probably the rest of F1, too. The hope was that with an upgraded Renault power unit – software that allowed the energy recovery system to be “95 per cent as good as it’s going to be” – and a new fuel from Total reckoned to be worth 0.15sec per lap, the full potential of the RB10 might see it trading blows with the Mercedes. Well it arrived fully loaded and with slightly narrower sidepods and the end result was: Hamilton 1min 25.232sec, Ricciardo 1min 26.285sec. “The lap was good,” Danny said. “I was expecting it to be closer than that.” It was a lap that pretty much extinguished the hope that the title fight is not going to feature only the two Mercedes drivers.

Perhaps Sebastian Vettel could have found a little more time from the car, had his weekend gone more smoothly – but surely not a whole second. He missed Friday practice almost entirely when the wiring loom chafed and shorted on the replacement chassis that had been prepared for him. Before he’d completed a lap of Q3, the gearbox selected two ratios at once and the five-place penalty for the replacement unit left him 15th. He drove a sparkling race to fourth, the RB10’s superb stopping ability very evident as he compensated for the car’s inherent lack of straightline speed by braking super-late into Turn 10, where he made most of his passing moves.

As easily the second-quickest car on the track after the Mercedes, it was not unnatural that he should be able to come through, but it required an out-of-phase three-stop strategy to do it, relying on the car’s speed and its newer rubber to overcome the extra stop over most of the rest. He set the race’s fastest lap along the way, giving some to suggest that had he started near the front he might have challenged the Mercs – but this was a false comparison. The three-stop strategy allowed him to be on a far better combination of light fuel load and fresh tyres than the two-stopping Mercs for the purposes of fastest lap comparison. He set his time on lap 55, 11 from the end when carrying about 17kg of fuel on option tyres that were three laps old. Rosberg set the second fastest lap – on lap 51, on six-lap-old prime tyres and carrying around 23kg of fuel. Tyre degradation was reckoned by most teams to be in the order of 0.1sec per lap, the prime tyre was itself about 0.8sec slower than the option (giving Vettel a total tyre advantage of 1.1sec in this comparison) and the 6kg difference in fuel loads when the times were set would equate to around 0.2sec.

Subtract 1.3sec from Rosberg’s actual best lap and you get the approximate lap time he could have set given the same fuel load and tyres as Vettel – and it works out at 1min 27.9sec compared with Vettel’s actual 1min 28.9sec, tallying very well to the 1sec advantage Mercedes-Benz enjoyed over Red Bull in qualifying.

Inside Red Bull, there’s a belief that there are three tenths to come from Seb if they can develop energy harvesting/engine mapping that allows him to drive the car the way he naturally wants on corner entry. He was always able to extract lap time from the blown exhaust cars in the first part of the turn by using a sudden turn-in that would upset the rear into sliding, giving him very quick direction change, and he would then counter-intuitively stand on the throttle – often one gear down, in order to bring the revs up – using the extra rear downforce from the exhaust-blowing to halt the slide once he’d got his direction change. Obviously the 2014 cars cannot be driven that way, given the lack of exhaust blowing, but it’s believed there is scope to configure the mapping and energy harvesting in a way that might at least partially mimic that trait. It’s all ifs and buts – and it isn’t going to find them one second. And that’s from the team with easily the second fastest car.

The wildly partisan crowd rose as one as Fernando Alonso went down the inside of Ferrari team-mate Kimi Räikkönen into Turn Four three laps from the end, having trailed behind him from Turn One of the first lap. But it was only for sixth place and almost a lap down. The team’s first priority is to fine-tune its car’s energy harvesting efficiency. It had been improved since China and was delivering more electrical boost, but its harvesting rate was still not as quick as that of Mercedes, meaning it ran out of steam earlier down the straights. Furthermore, the slow sections of the track exposed its traction shortcomings. Räikkönen’s paranoia antennae were raised by Alonso’s race strategy and he was asking for explanations from the team afterwards. At the first stops Fernando had pitted first, even though Räikkönen was running ahead of him, but this was actually because the team needed to cover the Williams of Felipe Massa, which had just pitted for new tyres. Later, attempting to combat Vettel, Alonso converted to a three-stop while Räikkönen was left on a two. It didn’t repel Vettel but it did allow Alonso to use his newer option tyres to pass Räikkönen on old primes.

But both Ferraris gave best to Valtteri Bottas’s Williams-Mercedes, which took a well-judged fifth. In a car prone to over-working its rear tyres, Bottas drove well, running third for his first stint and using his Mercedes power to out-accelerate and then stave off Ricciardo. But the car ultimately didn’t have the pace to hold off the Red Bulls. The Lotus E22 of Romain Grosjean might also have beaten the Ferraris, had it not suffered a partial ERS failure that made it very slow on the pit straight and allowed the red cars to tow past. Grosjean held on to finish eighth ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg, whose dice lasted all race and was only settled when Pérez went around Hülk’s outside at Turn One after the final stops.

So what pressure could there possibly be inside Mercedes, with a car so dominant? Räikkönen wasn’t the only one with competitive paranoia; Hamilton had it, too. Both his stops were slow – a sticking front-left and right-rear – and he was constantly questioning the team’s strategy calls. At one point he even questioned where his race engineer had been for the previous few laps, as he struggled with an oversteer problem. Then there was a misunderstanding with the front wing angle he wanted at his final stop, all contributing to an edgy feeling – as Rosberg continued to come at him hard, using the alternative strategy of a prime tyre middle stint/option finale that had also been deployed by the team in Bahrain as a way of giving both drivers a chance. In the absence of anyone else to race, they have only each other – and it’s great that Mercedes is allowing it to happen… even if it does cause a bit of unease within the cockpit’s intensity.

Close to the edge
Turn 7, Spain

At the compression of the hill after they’ve turbocharged their way down from the Seat hairpin, the latest cars don’t really like being braked – it’s noticeable how much more respect the drivers are giving the extreme edges of the track on approach than last year, allowing for some waywardness as the torque reversal on the rear axles destabilises them – but they like accelerating out of there even less.

Last year they wouldn’t be using their KERS boost here as they already had as much torque as the rear tyres could handle; now there’s no choice – the additional electrical torque is there regardless. In combination with the deletion of both exhaust-enhanced rear downforce and the beam wings, the 2014 generation of car is deliciously overpowered for such a slow corner.

So they squirm their way up the hill like excited pups on a polished floor and the most excited pup of all is Kimi Räikkönen’s traction-light Ferrari. In this session Kimi hasn’t yet got the new rear suspension, as fitted to Alonso’s car – he will get it in the afternoon – and the behavioural difference is visible; a full-on power slide over the kerbs on the right and again as the track kinks the other way through Turn Eight immediately after, steeply uphill all the way, pointing at a blue, blue sky on a perfect morning, the heat already beginning to bubble.

As he crests the hill approaching Campsa – blind apex, sixth gear, about 135mph – he might just have sub-consciously registered a flash of blue and yellow in his peripheral, the colours of Aviedo, Alonso’s home town. This is where the people from the area gather every year – and this time they have planted a banner reading ‘F. Alonso. Best Driver In The World.’ They might have a point; Fernando’s hustling momentum into this turn, working the throttle far more busily than in the V8 era, looks and sounds wonderful. Praise be, he’s driving it on the throttle, through a corner the best V8 cars took flat from the moment the steering was turned.