Grand Prix notebook

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Spain and Monaco

Rd 5, Catalunya, May 10 2015

1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 41min 12.555sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 41min 30.106sec
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 41min 57.897sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 28.270sec
Race distance: 66 laps, 190.826 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1min 24.681sec

Rd 6, Monaco, April 19 2015

1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 49min 18.420sec
2 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 49min 22.906sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 49min 24.473sec

Fastest lap: Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB11 1min 18.063sec
Race distance: 78 laps, 161.734 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 15.098sec

Something’s got to give at Red Bull. As the serious under-performance of Renault’s F1 hybrid continues into the second year of the formula, so the marketing-led F1 project of the drinks company is increasingly under threat, its partnership with Renault under ever more strain. That marketing campaign was working when world titles were being amassed, but the return on the annual budget of about £400 million for its two F1 teams is much less convincing now the senior Red Bull team is struggling. Besides, maybe F1 has now done its job for the drinks company. Its boss Dietrich Mateschitz is notoriously capable of making snap decisions once he has made up his mind about something.

As Renault looks very publicly at its options – staying as is, withdrawing completely or buying a team of its own – continuing with Red Bull looks the least likely in the long run, given how awkwardly the relationship is poised at the moment.

Then there is Audi, whose long-time boss Ferdinand Piëch always dismissed F1. Publicly he said this was because of its lack of road relevance. Privately, it’s believed he refused to countenance being involved with Bernie Ecclestone. But things were afoot at Audi. In the month prior to the Spanish Grand Prix Piëch had resigned in a boardroom coup. Martin Winterkorn, the previous chief executive, received the unanimous blessing of the VW Group board to replace Piëch as chairman. Moving up to replace Winterkorn as chief executive was Rupert Stadler. Both men are believed to be impressed by the marketing benefits being amassed by marketplace rival Mercedes from its current F1 success.

Meanwhile, former Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali was hired by Audi last October to head its competition programme. He is believed to have presented a full feasibility appraisal of an Audi F1 project.

In Spain, Mateschitz’s close ally, the straight-talking Dr Helmut Marko, summarised Red Bull’s position thus: “If we don’t have a competitive engine in the near future, then either Audi is coming or we are out.”

That was the high stakes backdrop to Red Bull’s Spanish and Monaco Grand Prix weekends, where any routine racing problem seemed to carry great weight and possible significance.

Spain

Mercedes came into this weekend comfortably leading the world championship and with both its cars still on their first of their four-engine seasonal allocation. Red Bull came in with just a handful of points on the board, a significant horsepower deficit and with one car – Daniil Kvyat’s – already on its fourth engine and the other with a question mark about its third.

Renault had not, as originally planned, used up any development tokens here. All the changes revolved around the software and in improving the power unit’s driveability rather than its outright horsepower. Until the engineers at Viry could get a handle on the unreliability, they were reluctant to commit to a mechanical upgrade. For some reason the unit loses about 40bhp when transferred from dyno to car – whether that be Red Bull or Toro Rosso. It’s also far more reliable on the dyno – but that’s not unusual.

Mario Illien – drafted in as a consultant to Renault Sport at Red Bull’s instigation – is convinced the horsepower problems lie within the combustion chamber of the engine and he has designed a single-cylinder prototype for Viry to try. The original plan, if this showed well, was to have it as the basis for an upgraded engine to be introduced mid-season. Pride is at stake, however, and there is concern at Red Bull that the Illien project has not been accorded any particular urgency. His stock within Viry undoubtedly took a knock when a host of his upgrades to the existing engines was fitted to the units before Melbourne and just exacerbated its driveability problems.

Red Bull’s engineers, meanwhile, had been busy in the three-week gap between Bahrain and Barcelona. The short nose that was always part of the RB11’s concept had finally passed its crash test and was now fitted to the car. This enhanced the airflow going between nose underside and front wing, channelled to the underbody and diffuser to increase rear downforce. The wind tunnel suggested it was worth as much as 0.7sec per lap around Barcelona.

But the others hadn’t been standing still. Mercedes had a new front wing and floor while Ferrari had a massive upgrade accounting for 70 per cent of the body’s surfaces, including sidepods, front wing, floor, diffuser and rear wing endplates. Given that there is a limitation on wind tunnel hours and CFD power, the extent of the upgrade caused some consternation and puzzlement among rival teams.

The gap between Mercedes and Red Bull remained much as before. The gains from the new nose were not as big as simulation had suggested. It had been hoped that it would give Red Bull back the high-speed downforce advantage it had enjoyed last year – but it was actually just as far adrift in the aero-demanding middle sector here as it had been at the similarly demanding middle sector of Sepang a month earlier. Mercedes had improved, yes – and Red Bull had too. But the net deficit remained much as before. That’s what the numbers suggested as Kvyat qualified seventh, more than one second adrift of Nico Rosberg’s pole for Mercedes, with Daniel Ricciardo a further two tenths back in 10th. “The upgrades didn’t give us what we were expecting,” said the Australian.

“It’s difficult to know exactly how well or not the upgrade is working,” said a frustrated Christian Horner, “because we are so mileage-limited on the engines.”

Ricciardo had missed most of first practice as his engine had developed a leak – and needed to be changed for the fourth unit, which already had plenty of racing miles on it. With Kvyat already on his fourth, they were desperately trying to keep from incurring grid penalties at Monaco and restricted their running in Spain accordingly.

Things looked slightly better in the sister Toro Rosso camp, where Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen had qualified fifth and sixth respectively, a few tenths ahead of the Red Bulls. But this was partly on account of high downforce settings that would make them very vulnerable in the race.

In other news, Rosberg had finally made the breakthrough over Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton, beating him to pole by a couple of tenths around a track with trickily variable grip. Ferrari’s upgrade did not bring the hoped-for gains and on Friday night it had converted Kimi Räikkönen’s car back to the old sidepod set-up in order to conduct a back-to-back with Sebastian Vettel’s upgraded car. The good news for Ferrari was that the new car was quicker. The bad news was that it had still fallen about one second adrift of Mercedes. Its deficit in the previous few races had been only around a third of that. Cynics believed this to be connected with a new technical directive issued by the FIA regarding fuel flow. It’s believed Ferrari had found a way of briefly exceeding the 100kg/hour limit while respecting that limit through the fuel flow meter itself.

That loophole, if it was such, was reckoned to be worth an extra 25bhp but had now been closed off.

Rosberg dominated the race to take his first win of the season, with Hamilton compromised by a wheel-spinning start that put him behind Vettel’s Ferrari for the first two stints. With overtaking proving impossible, Mercedes converted him from the conventional two-stop strategy to a three-stop in order to get the clear track needed to finally emerge ahead of the Ferrari. A cross-threaded wheel nut for Hamilton at his first stop had prevented him getting ahead on that occasion.

Vettel was 45sec adrift of the winner at the flag. His average race day deficit in the four preceding races (including his victory in Malaysia) was 8sec. But Red Bull could only look on in envy at such a shortfall. Ricciardo and Kvyat finished a lapped seventh and 10th respectively. They’d had no particular problems, other than Kvyat’s poor start off the line. Ricciardo had initially given best to Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus-Mercedes as the best of the midfield group ever-further distant from the Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams teams up ahead. But the

Lotus suffered a collapsed rear wing endplate later. Kvyat fought his way past the two Toro Rossos to lie ninth but on the last lap was repassed by an aggressive Sainz, the two cars actually making contact as they squabbled among themselves over the crumbs. “That’s just where we are at the moment,” said Horner.

Monaco

It had been such a big deal for Red Bull not to take any engine penalties at Monaco because it represented probably the team’s best opportunity of the season to show well. The layout of the sinewy street circuit does not unduly punish a lack of horsepower. More is still better and less still worse, of course. But the car’s low-speed aerodynamics are almost certainly better than those of Williams, for example, one of the cars normally ahead. So although Ricciardo and Kvyat were only 14th and 16th through the speed trap at the exit of the tunnel – at 176mph compared to Felipe Massa’s Williams-Mercedes at 182mph – they sat fourth and fifth on the grid, many places ahead of Williams. The deficit to Hamilton’s pole-sitting Mercedes was just 0.8sec and Ricciardo was actually disappointed not to be lining up third ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari. A miscommunication from the pitwall on his final lap led to him using the wrong engine map, meaning he was down on power to the tune of about 0.2sec – which would comfortably have eclipsed the Ferrari.

The good news for Red Bull was that it was absolutely as competitive as hoped around the streets and it had not picked up the feared engine penalty for either car. But there were two bits of bad news. The Strategy Group had not approved the use of an unpenalised fifth engine, as had been on the cards and which would have been particularly welcome at Red Bull. It was going into this race with both cars already on the last of their four-race seasonal allocation. By contrast both Mercedes W06s were doing their sixth consecutive race on their first engines. That and a whole lot more horsepower than Renault into the second year of the formula; it’s easy to understand Red Bull’s frustration.

Which brings us to the second bit of bad news for Red Bull: in the gap between these two races Audi’s Rupert Stadler had said that his company would not, after all, be coming to F1 in the foreseeable future. It’s said there was a strong core within Audi that wanted to, but the VW element was largely against.

Meantime Renault was strongly rumoured to be looking at buying back the Enstone-based former Renault-branded Lotus team. It had previously been investigating buying Toro Rosso. Red Bull’s long-term options were not looking promising.

In the race itself, they were a respectable fourth and fifth, Kvyat ahead. The big story of the day was how Mercedes blew Hamilton’s race by unnecessarily pitting him for fresh tyres under a late-race safety car after Max Verstappen crashed his Toro Rosso heavily at Ste Dévote, having misjudged a manoeuvre on Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Paranoid about being ambushed by a new-tyred Ferrari at the restart, Mercedes brought Hamilton in believing it had more time to do so than it actually did. He rejoined third, with team-mate Rosberg – who had trailed Hamilton by 25 seconds when the accident occurred – now leading and on his way to becoming a triple Monaco GP winner. Vettel was able to fend off Hamilton over the remaining laps.

Kvyat had passed Ricciardo within seconds of the start and they ran virtually the whole race fourth and fifth. At the pitstops Ferrari was able to get Räikkönen ahead of Ricciardo – and Kimi was closing on Kvyat when the safety car came out. There was an opportunity here for Red Bull, though. Such was Ricciardo’s gap over seventh place there was no risk to bringing him in for a fresh set of tyres. The hope was that he could use these to attack Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg – now that the safety car had brought them back to within his reach. This of course entailed passing Räikkönen and then getting Kvyat out of his way.

He passed Räikkönen in a marginal move down the inside of Mirabeau, light contact being made. Earlier Fernando Alonso had been handed a 5sec penalty for a similar move. But the stewards took no action this time.

Now for the delicate matter of moving Kvyat aside.

“Let your team-mate through please. He’s on a different strategy to you,” came the radio call. “Good for him,” countered Kvyat. But he was reassured that if Ricciardo could not pass anyone in the remaining eight laps he would hand the place back to Daniil at the last corner.

Ricciardo was scintillating in these last few laps, quickly closing the gap down to the Vettel/Hamilton dice on his new super-soft tyres, fantastically fast and aggressive through the swimming pool section. It netted him the race’s fastest lap. But there was no way past the cars ahead. As promised, he lifted off at Rascasse on the last lap and handed fourth place back to his team-mate.

Horner had got married between these two races, observing that, “Technically you are all here sharing my honeymoon.” But any honeymoon between Red Bull and Renault is long over. “This is a track where we didn’t have to compromise our downforce for the engine, and this is the result. I think the fact we got through this race without any engine issues at all is a step in the right direction. We now have to evaluate what happens in Montréal – whether we take a penalty there or not. It really depends on the state of these engines after this race.”

And evaluating in the longer term? Horner spent some time during the weekend with Renault president Carlos Ghosn and said, “I think Renault knows that whatever its future is in F1 looking forward, then it needs a competitive engine. That is where the focus is right now.”

Trackside view
Monaco, Piscine

For all that downforce has robbed us of visual drama at many places over the years, at a few locations it’s definitely enhanced it spectacularly. The most vivid illustration of this is the swimming pool section of Monaco, where the cars carry outrageous speed – about 135mph – between the barriers.

Through the left-right the Mercedes takes around three-quarters of the kerb’s width, its suspension incredibly supple. Even with the inner wheel scrabbling in the air, the outer front remains planted to the Tarmac. Daylight is visible beneath the inner rear tyre and, as the car continues to turn, when that wheel lands it twitches the car into a snarly little shrug before the great invisible hand of downforce presses down to quell any dissent.

The Mercs are visually the quickest things through here, Hamilton all extravagant slides right from the very start, Rosberg more contained in style but still very committed. But the most visually dramatic are the Lotus pair Maldonado and Grosjean. The Lotus is supple, too, but has less downforce, the drivers having more of a fight on their hands to keep it out of the barriers as it lands after that kerb. Then it’s hard on the brakes for the tight right-hander afterwards and at this point the Lotus almost always locks up its front tyres. The whole take-off-to-slide-to-tyre-smoke sequence takes about two and a half seconds, during which time the boys are super-busy.

This year there are yellow concrete ‘sausages’ at the inner extremities of the kerbing around this tight-right and the following left – to deter drivers taking liberties (as if!). Most cars are changing direction quite happily through here but in these early stages of the weekend the Red Bulls are not getting enough rotation into the right-hander – and because they can’t simply put the car hard over that first kerb, it’s putting them at an acute angle of attack for the left-hander that follows. So Ricciardo and Kvyat have to take more of the second kerb than ideal, triggering flares of wheelspin as they disappear out of view.