Grand Prix Notebook

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Malaysia, China & Bahrain

Rd 2
Sepang, March 29 2015

1 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 41min 05.793sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 41min 14.362sec
3 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 41min 18.103sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1min 42.062sec
Race distance: 56 laps, 192.879 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 49.834sec

Rd 3
Shanghai, April 12 2015

1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1hr 39min 42.008sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W06 1hr 39min 42.722sec
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 39min 44.996sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 42.208sec
Race distance: 56 laps, 185.559 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 35.782sec

Rd 4
Bahrain, April 19 2015

1 Lewis Hamilton: Mercedes W06 1hr 35min 05.809sec
2 Kimi Räikkönen: Ferrari SF15-T 1hr 35min 09.189sec
3 Nico Rosberg: Mercedes W06 1hr 35min 11.842sec

Fastest lap: Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari SF15-T 1min 36.311sec
Race distance: 57 laps, 191.530 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W06 1min 32.571sec

Whether you measure it since driver coaching over the radio was banned (Hungary last year) or since his clash with Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton at Spa, coming into the quick-fire Malaysia/China/Bahrain sequence of the 2015 season, Nico Rosberg had won just one race compared to the seven of Hamilton. He needed to turn things around. His strong mid-season challenge of 2014 had enabled him to take the previous title fight all the way to the final round and he became the first Hamilton team-mate to outqualify him over the balance of a season. In his ninth season of F1, Rosberg had finally got his hands on a championship-calibre car and he was making a very credible claim on being a championship-calibre driver rather than the ‘number-one-and-a-half’ status he’d generally been accorded. “I just need to work on my race performances a little bit,” he’d said after conceding to Hamilton in Abu Dhabi, “but I know how I can do that – and I will do that.”

But in Melbourne for the 2015 season-opener Hamilton’s superiority had made Rosberg look like a number two. With Mercedes still the dominant team, despite the growing threat of Ferrari, these three races could be seen as possibly defining his whole career, how he will go down in the history books, how long a career he will have. He surely had to halt Hamilton’s momentum, both in the championship and psychologically, if he was to prevent this season from getting out of his control – and how many more seasons in an F1 career that’s already almost a decade old will a driver get to sit in such a car? His challenge coming into this vital phase was very clear-cut. But the defining of it and the doing of it, with a phenomenon of a team-mate on the crest of a confidence wave – possibly beginning to shift the whole internal emphasis of the team through sheer pummelling performance – are very different things.

Malaysia

For the watching world, the most significant point about this race was that Mercedes was beaten fairly and squarely for the first time in the hybrid era. On the three previous occasions the Silver Arrows had failed to win, it was because they’d encountered a mechanical problem or crashed. This time Sebastian Vettel defeated them convincingly in just his second race for Ferrari, a victory that was rooted in a combination of the red car’s superior rear tyre usage in the Sepang heat and its vastly improved engine performance since last year. But for Rosberg, of greater significance were the two factors that nullified his challenge to Hamilton: rain in Q3 and Marcus Ericsson’s early-race spin that brought out the safety car and led to Rosberg losing 8sec to a very closely packed field by being stacked behind Hamilton in the pits. “That left me with just too much to do,” he said afterwards.

He’s not dictating his own destiny right now – and Hamilton’s sensational form is the main reason. Never was this more apparent than in the early moments of Q3, which had been delayed as the afternoon’s tropical storm arrived, the feedback loop of circulating heat and moisture being broken and causing the contents of the equatorial heat engine to drop its load spectacularly, with accompanying sound and lighting effects. On intermediate tyres everyone was feeling where the grip and standing water might be, but Hamilton felt at ease immediately and, as if by intuition, knew the parts of the track where grip could be found. He was 1.4sec faster than anyone on these first runs. Rosberg was driving like a normal mortal. “Which parts of the track is the fastest guy using?” said Nico over the radio, trying to circumnavigate the rule that forbids team-mate comparison information being given to the driver. “Sorry, I can’t give you that information,” replied his engineer Tony Ross. He’d have to wait until he returned to the garage. On the second runs, with the track drying, the plan was to do two laps on the fresh inters, the first of them relatively gentle, the second to take maximum advantage of the track at its least wet. There was a territorial mix-up on the first lap, Nico inadvertently baulking Lewis, and on the second flyer both had used up the best of their tyres – allowing Vettel’s Ferrari, taking full advantage of the track drying, to split them. Hamilton’s first run stood as pole.

In another repeat of 2014, Rosberg made a better start from the inside of row two than Vettel from the outside front row and made for the gap between Seb and the pit wall, with Vettel moving left to crowd him in, trying to intimidate. “Again, I just kept coming and prayed he didn’t move any further,” said Rosberg, clearly just as irritated with Vettel as last year. This time, though, Seb swooped around the back of the Merc and squeaked ahead on the outside into Turn One, chopping across Rosberg’s nose with a rude little nudge of tyre walls. Vettel, tight behind Hamilton, was now in a position to use the Ferrari’s ability to stop one time fewer than the Mercedes to beat Lewis in a straight fight. Instead, however, Ericsson dropped the Sauber into Turn One, the safety car came out and the three-stopping Mercs were brought in to change tyres while the two-stopping Vettel stayed out, now leading. Rosberg had to be stacked in the pit, waiting for Hamilton’s stop to be completed then being delayed further waiting for a safe release. Upon resumption of racing Hamilton dealt with the traffic knife-through-butter style; Rosberg was rather more circumspect.

These circumstances only made it easier for Vettel to defeat the Mercs, which were not significantly faster than the potent Ferrari. Hamilton was 10sec behind at the flag, with Rosberg not too far adrift.

China

The Mercedes-Ferrari tyre usage game – and how Ferrari is now close enough on pace for that to matter – again framed the circumstances of Rosberg’s quest to beat Hamilton. Again, he failed in that quest and again it came from not being able to control his own destiny from the front. However, if there was a positive to take away from a trying weekend in which he became embroiled in a post-race public spat with Hamilton, it was the tiny margin by which he had lost pole position to his team-mate. Those four hundredths of a second meant he was consigned to have the pace of his race dictated by a tyre-conserving Hamilton, even with Vettel’s Ferrari snapping at his heels. Crucial though those missing four hundredths were in dictating his weekend, they also suggested that a breakthrough switch between their fortunes – between Hamilton controlling the event and Rosberg doing so – was within reach. That was as close to a positive as he could take from Hamilton’s eighth victory in 10 races.

The tyre equation, and how it plays out between Mercedes and Ferrari, is complex. In the era of Pirelli control tyres it is quite possible to have a car with too much downforce, and the Mercedes W06 sometimes nudges into this territory – just as the Red Bulls of the first half of 2012 did, when the rubber was particularly weak. The Pirelli medium (option) tyre was very much in equilibrium at Sepang with the forces the Ferrari was applying to it, whereas the Mercedes, in grinding the rubber harder into the track surface, was creating an imbalance between the surface of the tyre (too hot) and the core (not hot enough) – breaking down the chemical bonds and leading to greater heat degradation. This had been enough to allow Ferrari to do one stop less than Mercedes, the root of Vettel’s victory. At Shanghai the emphasis shifts from the rear tyres to the fronts. The option tyre this time was the soft and in Friday practice it looked as though the Ferrari was getting it working better than the Mercedes, able to do more laps before the grip surrendered; not enough to allow one less stop this time, so unlikely to win Ferrari the race over a Mercedes that remains outright faster, but enough to apply the pressure. But the much higher track temperatures of race day changed that picture. Now that tyre was out of equilibrium on the Ferrari because the lower grip of the track needed the car to be grinding the rubber harder into the surface. Different compound, different track layout, it made for a different mechanism from Malaysia in terms of the ideal combination of downforce and track temperature. But the upshot was that, on race day, the Mercedes was better on its tyres than the Ferrari.

The crucial point was that on the eve of the race, this was all just theory – Mercedes’ theory. Hamilton could not be sure that the pattern seen on Friday wouldn’t be repeated. So once he’d beaten Rosberg away from the line, with Vettel slotting in behind the second Merc, Hamilton drove at a very controlled pace. Too controlled for Rosberg’s comfort. “He’s driving too slowly, get him to speed up,” he demanded over the radio, concerned that at this pace he wasn’t far enough clear of Vettel to be immune from being passed at the pit stops by the dreaded ‘undercut’. As it happened, Rosberg need not have worried. Just as Hamilton upped the pace, allowing Rosberg to do the same, Vettel’s fell away – the Ferrari’s front tyres were finished. He was too far back to make the undercut work – and this happened on the eve of both stops, ensuring a Mercedes 1-2.

Rosberg was openly critical of Hamilton’s tactics; Lewis responded that he was looking after his own race and not Rosberg’s – that if Nico had wanted to go faster he should have tried to overtake. Rosberg countered that it wasn’t feasible because the tyres would only grain more as he got into Hamilton’s slipstream. The performance of 17-year-old Max Verstappen – in which he made four stunning passes before the Toro Rosso’s engine seized four laps from the end – would tend to undermine that argument. Rosberg’s reputation was definitely not enhanced by the spat, but he needed now to go inside himself, to find strength from the idea that on Saturday he had been tantalisingly close to having the beating of the form man.

Bahrain

Rosberg’s preoccupation with Hamilton, with how he might finally beat him, actually worked against him here. The choices he made in qualifying – with the aim not of trying to out-qualify him, but to have a raceday advantage – backfired.

Tyres and Hamilton were again the overriding themes on Nico’s mind as we came to the middle-eastern island, the tanks and armed presence less ubiquitous than in the previous few years, but still present. The way the patterns of performance played out around the floodlit track in the early evening, Rosberg’s tyre/Hamilton conundrum was different from that faced in China, but has a similar outcome – one that wasn’t in Rosberg’s favour as Hamilton took win number nine from 11.

Bahrain’s a big deal of a track for Rosberg. He’d sat on pole here for the previous two years and made his sparkling Grand Prix debut here in 2006, when he’d set the fastest race lap in his Williams. By contrast Hamilton had never sat on pole in eight attempts. Given the tiny margin by which Nico had lost out to Lewis in qualifying at Shanghai – and the crucial part that played in the outcome – in hindsight he should not have been blindsided by the tempting opportunity of going for a different approach.

It was to do with how much faster the soft tyre was than the medium – not only in qualifying but, on the basis of practice, over the race. There was a big advantage to be had by maximising the number of laps you could stay on the soft for the race. So tyre usage in qualifying – when you are allocated three sets of each, plus an extra set of the soft for those making the top-10 run-off – became very tactical. First of all, were the Mercs fast enough in Q1 to graduate without having to use a set of softs? No, not comfortably. Not given that the soft was more than 2sec faster. Even a bottom-five car on softs – a McLaren, say – might conceivably have gone faster than a Mercedes on mediums. So reluctantly Rosberg – just like everyone else – used a set just to ensure graduation to Q2. But he drove relatively gently, wanting to keep every precious grain of grip on every option tyre he had, ready to be unleashed in beating Hamilton on race day.

He used another set in Q2, but again did a very conservative lap, 1.2sec slower than Hamilton on the tyres he’d be obliged to start the race on. That left him with two sets for Q3 and, ordinarily, that would mean one banker lap and a second, more aggressive tilt at pole. But then Hamilton – whose turn it was this weekend to go out first in the running order – went out for his first run on a used set, meaning he was keeping a brand-new set for the race. Upon clocking that, Rosberg and his engineer Tony Ross chose to reassess. “I was thinking about the race too much,” said Rosberg afterwards. “I wanted not to take too much from my race tyres… In Q3, once Lewis went out on used tyres for the first run, then I had to do the same, otherwise I’d be at a big disadvantage to him in the race because there’s a big offset between new and used. But the grip on the used was so bad, so much less than I was expecting, that I couldn’t get a feel for the limit at all. So the first time in qualifying that I’d pushed at all hard was in the final run – and I just couldn’t find the rhythm. I’d thrown myself out of my rhythm with my choices. Not very clever. It would have been an acceptable trade-off if I’d qualified second to Lewis with better tyres for the race. But Seb beat me as well, and that’s not an acceptable trade-off.”

“You have a choice which way you wanna do it,” said Hamilton of the challenges of how much to take from your race tyres in Q2. “Sometimes they tell you to target a certain time. I just decided to get a good feel for it. But I think even if I’d gone a second slower in Q2 I’d have still done the exact same laps in Q3. I’d got my rhythm a long time ago from previous laps and through practice, so I think either way it wasn’t going to be a problem for me.” There spoke a driver with a more improvisational approach than Rosberg and one furthermore riding that wave.

Yet again, Rosberg was left unable to dictate his own destiny. One can only speculate on how it might have turned out had he simply followed the normal programme and not got distracted by trying to find ‘the unfair advantage’. Would his natural affinity with the Sakhir track have overcome a deficit to Hamilton that in Shanghai had been so small? Had events of the season to date influenced this choice? “I don’t think it’s related,” he said in the still-warm Saturday evening. “I think I was just looking at it as an individual event and thinking how to get the best from the weekend.” But he still looked thoughtful afterwards. His demeanour remained pleasant, he still seemed together, didn’t have the air of a beaten man. He seems like someone searching for answers and coming up short, but not even close yet to surrendering. He’d called this one wrong, but there was nothing to suggest he couldn’t bat that away. The mental toughness of a top driver can be a remarkable thing to observe, close up.

Although Hamilton was always in control during the race, Rosberg was aggressive in dealing with the Ferraris – several times. He passed Kimi Räikkönen once and Sebastian Vettel three times. Ferrari twice brought Vettel in from behind Rosberg to undercut him ahead and each time Rosberg responded with aggressive on-track passes. Vettel eventually damaged his nosecone clattering over kerbs while trying to fend Rosberg off and had to pit for a replacement.

This left Räikkönen as the Scuderia’s main hope. Both Mercs were marginal on brake cooling, but in addition Rosberg’s suffered a brake-by-wire failure two laps from the end just as the newer-tyred Räikkönen was launching a late attack. With the pedal going suddenly soft, Rosberg only just got through Turn One – and Räikkönen went past. Hamilton’s brake-by-wire then failed a lap later, though he was able to lift and coast his way to the flag still clear of the Ferrari. Rosberg was only third, but far from cowed.

Trackside view
Shanghai, Turn 12

Through the long, tyre-killing loop formed by Turns 11-12-13 there is a grudging balance to be made. It’s defined by the momentum that can be maintained into 12, the beginning of the never-ending right-handed part of the sequence. From the exit kerb the cars dive for another apex and, between turn-in and that outer kerb, the challenge on this cool Friday Shanghai morning is to get the harder compound front tyres to bite soon enough to pivot the car at speeds too low for downforce to help.

How quickly that front loads up determines how much momentum you can maintain in that tight window, which determines your speed for the next kilometre. Because the loop precedes F1’s longest straight.

In the short straight up to the braking zone of 11 several drivers are weaving furiously, trying to induce the heat in the front tyres vital for that initial bite.

The muffled popping of part-throttle as they enter into that window of opportunity is the sound of frustrated anguish as they wait for that front to load up before they can pour on the gas. The Mercedes is the quickest to get that bite, sun glinting off silver as the W06 gets on with it the moment Nico Rosberg turns the wheel. Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari understeers here, but it’s shallow and doesn’t cost him too much momentum.

Felipe Nasr’s Sauber cannot live with those two but has found a novel way of compensating. He enters from a shallower angle, doesn’t stay out as wide before turning in. It gives him momentum into the turn, though at the expense of making the corner last longer on exit. The Force Indias are bleeding lap time away here with front ends on a different wavelength to their drivers’ ambition; after a few laps Nico Hülkenberg’s frustration becomes obvious, as he allows the uncooperative machine to get out of line under power. But for drama, no one can live with Pastor Maldonado, compensating for the Lotus’s understeer into Turn 11 by pitching it wildly broadside. It gets him to the desired point for the approach to 12, and with front tyres the limitation here, he can ignore the wear he’s putting on the rears.