Grand Prix notebook: China and Bahrain

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With time to reflect upon his first race for Mercedes a couple of weeks earlier, Valtteri Bottas approached the double-header Shanghai/Bahrain races with a much fuller understanding of the scale of his challenge this year. Not only does he have Lewis Hamilton’s pace to be measured against but, because the Ferrari threat is real, he has a vital part to play in the team result. He wasn’t quite yet at a level that would allow him to go head-to-head with his team-mate under normal circumstances, but he was quick enough to determine the outcome of the intriguing Mercedes vs Ferrari battle. 

He needed, in short, to be able at least to put himself on the front row on the assumption that Hamilton sets pole. In these early races the Ferrari appears to have the edge in race pace but the Merc’s engine qualifying mode advantage gave it a small edge over one lap. So the obvious way for Mercedes to beat a faster Ferrari on the day would be if Bottas could at least be between Hamilton and Vettel on the grid and into the race. 

The ultimate aspirations for his Mercedes opportunity are higher than that, of course. But for now, in these early stages, that had to be his realistic target. He was still feeling his way with a car that is operationally much more intricate than the Williams he was used to, with more sophisticated control systems that require more adjustments from the driver if he’s to maximise performance over the lap. “It’s everything,” he related on the eve if the Chinese race. “You need to be 100 per cent with the car, know it perfectly in every single corner so you can drive it in the correct way. It’s not yet second nature but it’s improving all the time, becoming more natural. But you also have to understand how the team works out of the car, the meetings and debriefs, how it all rolls in terms of setting up the car. It’s a different feeling to before, a bigger team.

But it’s fantastic coming to every race knowing you have an opportunity to fight for the win, if you can get everything right. That’s an amazing feeling.”

The team’s other new boy, technical director James Allison, said. “It’s a very complex team, the way it’s structured and operates. I’m still getting up to speed with properly understanding it but from what I observe Valtteri has found his feet very quickly with his engineering team, has shown very tidy pace, learned the systems quickly and generally bedded in well with the team.”

That latter aspect was almost a given, his calm personality a major part of why Toto Wolff selected him as short-notice replacement for retiring world champion Nico Rosberg. “We went to look at who would be the best fit,” Wolff said at the W08’s launch this year. “There was an opportunity of improving the dynamics between the drivers in a positive way and I think Valtteri can bring something to the team, not only as a driver.” The implication being they wanted an easy fit alongside the guaranteed performance but sometimes high maintenance of Hamilton. 

Through much of Barcelona testing, as he worked through his understanding of the car, he’d been significantly adrift of Hamilton’s pace – as far as could be ascertained in this age of single-car testing. In Melbourne he’d qualified within less than 0.3sec – which was actually marginally closer to Hamilton than Rosberg had ever managed around Albert Park. His realistic target had to be outqualifying Vettel to make it an all-silver front row. He fell 0.2sec short of this in Melbourne, but only 0.001sec in Shanghai. He was running second behind Hamilton in the safety car queue after Vettel had pitted for slicks under a virtual safety car and, having been informed racing would resume at the end of the lap, was preparing his tyres. “I was trying to get my tyres warmer than those around me, was going left and right and accelerating at the same time – and I just lost it. Not something I’m proud of.” He dropped many places before recovering to fifth, then apologising to the team over the radio for ‘an amateur performance’. 

But Bottas is tough and unflappable. He took a back seat in the team celebrations for Hamilton’s China win over Vettel and resolved to do better in Bahrain a few days later. “He’s definitely the quickest team-mate I’ve had,” he said about Hamilton. “No surprise to that; he’s a multiple world champion. He doesn’t need to impress me. But I feel I’m getting close now.”

Ironically, Hamilton’s China win was gifted to him (and denied to Vettel) by Ferrari’s third driver Antonio Giovinazzi, who crashed his Sauber and brought out the safety car just after Vettel had made a move to slicks that would otherwise almost certainly have bought him track position over Hamilton.

On the slow-down lap in Shanghai, Bottas’s race engineer Tony Ross had inadvertently called him ‘Nico’ over the radio. Valtteri wasn’t offended, just amused. “It was bound to happen. He’s worked with Nico for so long.” It wouldn’t just be Hamilton Bottas was measured against, of course. It would also be against the phantom of the retired world champion. How was he doing in that regard? So far, so good. Nico was often outdriven by Hamilton too. But not always. There’d be weekends where he’d take it to him, even occasionally flat outperform him, steal a pole position off him and then fight out victory. Valtteri hadn’t done that yet. 

But then came Bahrain. The lap time advantage offered by the Merc’s qualifying engine mode was bigger at this power-sensitive track than at either of the previous races – and ultimately that ensured a front-row lock-out. Vettel was more than happy with the quality of his first Q3 lap and was dismayed to find himself 0.4sec adrift. Pole was going to be fought out exclusively between the Merc drivers. Initially Bottas was taking a little more from the tyres than Hamilton through the first two sectors, shading him there, but not having as much grip left through the final sector where Hamilton was more than making up the difference – but only by hundredths of a second. Tyre prep was crucial and, for his final lap, Bottas was as much as 7sec slower on his out-lap, trying to preserve as much of the Pirellis’ energy as possible. He matched his previous sector one time, was slightly slower through the sweeps of sector two, but had the final sector grip he’d been missing before. It bettered Hamilton’s first attempt by a hundredth – and at just the moment he crossed the line, Hamilton was suffering an oversteer snap through Turn 10. In that moment he lost pole and Bottas won it. 

Bottas had never before been outqualified by a team-mate around Bahrain and now, even with Hamilton as his team-mate, that 100 per cent record stood. He gave a brief whoop of delight on the radio and Tony Ross, remembering his name correctly this time, said: “You almost showed some emotion there. I’m impressed.” Afterwards Bottas smiled his shy smile and took the good-natured banter from Vettel in the press conference – “Is there even a Finnish word for excited?”– and accepting the gracious congratulations of Hamilton. 

Converting his first F1 pole to a debut victory was a fairy tale too far, however. It began going wrong on the grid, when a generator failure meant the excess pressure couldn’t be bled from his tyres. He led away but was undercut by Vettel’s Ferrari. On different compound tyres to Hamilton in the second stint, he struggled with oversteer and was eventually asked to move aside so that Hamilton might challenge Vettel. He complied – twice – but Vettel won regardless. Bottas was a distant third. “For a racing driver that [radio request] is maybe the worst thing you want to hear. But that’s how it is. I didn’t question it, because I could see there was potential for Lewis to challenge Sebastian whereas I could not. I completely understand the team’s request but personally it’s tough. I didn’t have enough pace today and we need to find the reasons why.”      

The win would have to wait. But there were 17 more races to go.

Trackside view, Turns 6&7, Bahrain

Bahrain desert at 2pm, torrid, broiling, refractive heat unfiltered by cloud, haze rising from the sandy boulders of the track’s infield. Stand atop them and look across to the right-left kink of Turns 6-7 that introduces cars to the downhill scream and the heavy braking demands that follow. Early in the session, many are still on exploratory laps, allowing all those subconscious sensors within them to give them a feel for the place in these bigger, faster machines. 

Daniel Ricciardo is the first into a proper run and the Red Bull looks the best it’s been so far this season, smooth inputs, high momentum, bold and decisive on the throttle in the no-man’s land mid-kink when it’s time to commit to the second part or bail. It forms a pretty good baseline of respectability by which to judge the others. 

There are only two cars that look decisively better – one red and one silver – but in different ways. The Ferrari looks more flighty and alive than the Red Bull, faster direction changes, Vettel busier and more urgent at the wheel. Hamilton arrives at the corner going visibly faster than anything else and committing to that speed upon entry – which gives him a busier exit even than the Ferrari, the Merc’s rear end twitching nervously but tyre-grinding momentum still being maintained. 

Word on the beat

Has Daniel Ricciardo signed a Ferrari contract from 2018? That was the heavy rumour doing the rounds in the days between the Chinese and Bahrain Grands Prix. The Red Bull ace was said to have reached agreement with the Scuderia in the days leading up to the season-opener in Australia and the assumption was that he would be taking the place of Kimi Räikkönen alongside Sebastian Vettel, thus renewing the partnership he had with the German multiple champion at Red Bull in 2014. That said, Vettel had yet to renew his current Ferrari contract, which expires at the end of this season. In Bahrain Ricciardo denied the existence of any such deal while speculation continued to link Vettel with Mercedes. The name of Carlos Sainz has also once more been mentioned in connection with Ferrari. 

Comments from the Istanbul track operator, to the effect that the return of the Turkish Grand Prix to the F1 calendar in 2018 had been ‘agreed in principle’, are wide of the mark. There has been discussion but no commitment to the race from Liberty Media and there was a feeling that political capital was made out of an informal meeting between Liberty’s Chase Carey and the Turkish president. The announcement that the Malaysian Grand Prix organisers are being allowed to exit their contract one year early, and that this year’s race in Sepang will be the final one, has created a space in the calendar but the return of the German Grand Prix – missing from this year’s calendar – is heavily mooted for 2018 while French Grand Prix’s return at Paul Ricard has already been confirmed. 

In the immediate wake of McLaren announcing Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 programme, Jenson Button mischievously tweeted, ‘Why have I got so many missed calls?’ There was a response from Mika Häkkinen who said: ‘Yeah, me too.’

A recent meeting of engine manufacturers at FIA headquarters, to discuss the regulations beyond 2020, seems to indicate F1 will retain some form of current hybrid technology. The idea of deleting the ers-H part of the power unit to increase noise did not find favour. Ferrari’s representative Matteo Binotto reported: “It was a constructive discussion and I think that the output finally was that we should try and keep the current format. although a few things certainly need
to be reviewed. I don’t see any sense in changing completely. All the automotive [world] is going towards hybrid cars and the technology we’ve got currently in Formula 1 is on the edge of that. I think that’s where we should be and we need to stay.”

Bernie Ecclestone was in Bahrain and on typically mischievous form, telling reporters that he felt many of the race organisers were paying too much for their events [ie the deals he had negotiated].  

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